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.

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Don’t be a pornographer

What do you call a person who uses pornography?

I am writing a chapter of my dissertation on pornography. Awkwardly, I kept using the phrase “the user of pornography” to denote, well, the user of pornography. The one who looks at the pictures and videos. The one who reads the smut.

Isn’t there a better term for this person?

The person who shoots the video, who snaps the picture, who writes the smut, they’ve got a name. But the looker and reader: they’re just a user. Right?

Photo: Steve Zeidler

Imagine having the title “pornographer” on your business card or your nameplate.

Here’s the thing: if you use pornography, you are a pornographer.

It is ultimately the user of pornography who summons the pornographic image to appear in all its objectivity in the heat of the faux-erotic moment. Nothing appears to a user of pornography until the user says “appear!” It is the user of pornography who calls out for a human person to be reduced to zeroes and ones, rendered on their screen, and objectified for their private and unilateral pleasure. 

If a pornographer is someone who causes pornography appear, then a user of pornography is just as much (if not more) a pornographer as the one who snaps the photograph, shoots the video, or writes the story. 

Don’t be a pornographer.

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.

Don’t Close Your Heart

The biggest surprise for me in church planting, by far, has been this:

Hell-storming Expectations

I thought that our little church would be storming the gates of hell like boy David against Big Bad Goliath. I thought we would be spending the majority of our energies and imaginations discerning how we would make a unique contribution to the flourishing of our city, and then acting on those conclusions. I assumed that what would keep me up at night would be my burden for helping my people get a burden for their neighbors and their spiritual and holistic needs.

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Mundane Realities

I never expected that the things that would keep me up at night were the deep needs and burdens of the ordinary Christians within our congregation. I didn’t anticipate that so much of my energy and imagination, and that of my co-planter, would be deployed in the service of helping our people navigate tough seasons in marriage, parenting, and vocation.

I feel dumb for this.

And I never expected that one of the hardest things for me to do with the ordinary Christians in my congregation would be to diligently keep my heart open to them. I wrote a while back about the necessity of having thick skin and a soft heart. Paul describes it in a similar way. He says to the Corinthian church that at the very same time he is grieved and perplexed by them, and yet his heart is open to them.

The Hard Work of Heart Work

In fact, he says that even though it is their unbecoming words, attitudes, and actions that have grieved and perplexed him (and messed up the life of the church), the barrier to a renewed relationship between he and them comes from closedness-of-heart. And not his heart. Theirs.

We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return … widen your hearts also. … Make room in your hearts for us. … I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. (2 Cor 6 and 7)

I’ve talked with veterans in ministry who have dealt with way more Corinthianesque garbage than I have. Some of them are burnt out. They have disengaged from ministry because they no longer want to have open hearts with difficult people. This saddens me, and should not be so. If you want a congregation with hearts wide open to one another, you, as the pastor, as the planter, have to persevere in open-heartedness.

As a pastor, as a church planter–heck, as a plain old Christian–you need to make sure that whatever barrier there might be between reconciliation with other people is always in the closedness of their hearts, not yours.

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Know Your Role

Just as a snowpocalypse is heading for the Southeast, I’m heading into a new work week. (I take Mondays off.) I want this work week to be apocalyptic. I’m realizing that I let The Mundane have an uncontested victory too many weeks.

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What I’m going to do to try and make this week apocalyptic will itself seem ironically mundane. I am going to spend 45 minutes in the morning reviewing my roles and establishing my goals. Sheesh. Even typing that last sentence feels boring.

My biggest takeaway from my most formative personal development book (Stephen Covey’s First Things First) was exactly this. I want to quit floating through my work week looking for the next least-boring thing that I can still justify as ‘work’ to do. I want to move the needle on my life’s work in a significant way by the time the week is out. And so I will sit down with my roles and goals.

Know Your Roles

What are they?

In more-or-less their order of importance, my seven personal roles are:

1. Husband.

2. Father.

3. Pastor-Church Planter.

4. Disciple-Maker.

5. Gospel Neighbor.

6. Community Group Leader.

7. Entrepreneur.

A couple of things to notice:

  • I’m entering a “work week”, but only one of these 7 roles—number 3—is actually my paid vocation. All 7 are my vocations, but only “Pastor-Church Planter” generates income.
  • My callings are life-specific. There may be 5,000 other Americans with the exact same vocational breakdown. That’s not many out of 315,000,000 Americans. Yours is probably different.
  • My callings are overwhelmingly relational. Most people’s probably are too, even if they don’t recognize them as such.
  • Most of my roles don’t immediately suggest obvious key actions that would move the needle in each calling. Most don’t seem to set me up for an apocalyptic week.

Know Your Goals

The only person who can discern what key actions in each of your roles will make for a well-worked work week is you. Ask yourself: “What’s next? What one action in each role, if tackled with zeal and followed through to completion, would enable me to say, at the end of this week, that I was faithful and fruitful across all my callings?”

The answers to this question are your goals for the week. Simple as that.

You will still have all your tasks, which are pressing and urgent. These aren’t your goals themselves. Your goals are the non-urgent, super-important things that will get lost—if you’re not vigilant—among the next-least-boring tasks and the distractions. Commit to these goals.  Schedule them. What block of time are you going to be working on it?

Reckon

Before you start the next week, sit down with your list of roles and the prior week’s goals. Evaluate yourself ruthlessly, and honestly. What kept you from moving the ball in the way you intended to? Were you faithful? Were you vigilant to schedule your goals and stick to your schedule?

Plan

Here’s where the work week gets apocalyptic. Working on the goals in each of your roles reveals what the next goal really ought to be. The apocalyptic boon of charting a clear course is in the fresh view afforded you as you arrive at the end of the charted course.

Adjust. Regroup. Make your goals more realistic, more achievable, more concrete, more measurable. Build on the momentum of what was achieved the prior week. Set aside this 45 minutes at the beginning of every week and make sure the prior week’s work reveals where you really are, and what’s really next.

_______________________

Look. I’m not speaking as an expert. I’m speaking as a church planter who floats and seeks distractions, who feels too often that his energy is not being channeled into the things that matter most. I post this not to lecture you. Mostly, I post it to keep myself accountable.

I’ll follow up in the days to come with some insights I gain as I actually commit myself to the task of seeking an apocalyptic work week.

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Shape it Story-like

The most insightful thing I ever said?

“You and your wife’s marriage is shaped like an argument. What you need is a marriage that’s shaped like a story.”

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Photo: Sara McAllister

When I uttered this, I was just beginning to climb out of my argument-shaped marriage and dip into my story-shaped marriage. (Both were to the same woman, mind you.)

We’ve had some great arguments since that time. Just the other day we spent half an hour arguing and exhibiting the proper form for doing squats. We both marshaled YouTube videos. In the end, we agreed to disagree. All this while millions of other married folks were making love. Ah well.

But we’ve enjoyed the last 4 years of story-shaped marriage. Immensely.

How to Shape Things Argumentatively

But we began marriage differently. How? With lots of convictions about what Christian marriage was supposed to mean, what it symbolized, what it demonstrated to the world. And yet it was not until rather recently that we realized that we could not enjoy our marriage, much less provoke our friends and neighbors with its beauty and mystery, if our marriage was shaped in an argumentative fashion. As though we each had something to prove, an argument to win, a victory to claim over one another, over other married couples, and over the rest of society.

About the same time—and I highly doubt this was a mere coincidence—I awakened to the fact that my ecclesiastical life was tragically shaped like an argument instead of a story. I thought of other denominations of Christians, of my pastors, of my elders, of my church friends, of non-Christians, as my opponents in an argument that I couldn’t lose without losing my very self.

Church Planting Sculpture

You’ve really got two choices in church planting.

  1. Plant a church which is shaped like an argument that you are determined to win.
  2. Plant a church which is shaped like a story which you are determined to tell, and in which you are determined to dwell.

I have made some arguments on this site — about 104 of them to date — about how to wisely plant a church. But what you’d experience if you spent a couple weeks with our church plant is not the strident corporate embodiment of a set of  church planting convictions. What you’d experience is the living body of Christ pulsating with life and carrying on in and with the story of redemption.

Heading into 2014, I feel like the luckiest church planter ever. I’ve got a wife with whom I regularly marvel at the joy of doing life together. And I’ve got a church in which we’re learning to lean into the story of God more and more each day.

Plant a church, and shape it like a story.

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4 Reasons Church Planters Need to Have a Good Sex Life

We’re all grown-ups here, right?

Ok.

Let’s talk about sex. Steve Childers listed it as one of the 7 S’s that are imperative for church planters to get right.

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It’s Not None of Their Business

Back when my wife and I first signed up to be assessed as potential church planters, we got a bracing warning from some of our best friends. They had been assessed by our denomination some years earlier to be church planting missionaries in Europe.

The warning? They had been asked how often she had a you-know-what.

At first I was appalled by this. How on earth is it anyone’s business to know such intimate, private, things about someone’s marriage? As far as I know, pulpit committees don’t ask for such steamy statistics when they’re vetting pastoral candidates for established congregations. So why church planters?

Why should anyone care if a church planter and his wife are having good sex?

Here’s 4 reasons why.

1. People are watching

In a church plant, the planter and his wife are hopefully much less sequestered from the rest of the church folk than in other churches. If you’re going to emphasize life-on-life discipleship and community-on-mission, people are going to know what your relationship with your wife is like. They’ll see the way you interact. The way you look at each other. The way you say goodbye to each other. They’ll see you smooch.

People will be able to tell if you have a good sex life simply because they’re around you a lot. And they’re watching. Not for sex, of course. But for love.

2. People want to hope

One of the reasons they’re watching—not eavesdropping or being creepy, but simply watching—is that they want to be able to dare to hope for a good sex life themselves. Perhaps it goes something like this: “Pastors are all spiritual and stuff. If the spiritual leader-guy and his wife have a good sex life, then maybe I, a normal person, can hope for a good sex life.”

It’s risky to hope. To hope that things can be better someday. But both single folks and married folks can get a lot of solid hope for sexual fulfillment in their future or current marriages by knowing that their pastor and church planter and his wife have, by God’s grace, learned to flourish in romance and intimacy.

3. Ladies in the church need to be comfortable around you

Wait. Won’t it make the ladies in the church super uncomfortable to be around you if they ever even think about the fact that you, the pastor-planter, are, in fact, a sexual being?

Nope. The opposite is actually the case.

When the ladies in the congregation have every reason in the world to believe that you are very happily married and have a thriving sex life with your wife, they can truly relate to you as a sister in Christ. On the other hand, a pastor with seemingly little interest in his wife will make ladies feel incredibly vulnerable.

4. Guys in the church need to learn from you

Pursuing a woman is a lifelong calling. If you’re married, it’s your most fundamental calling after your call to pursue Jesus. It will take an attentive, caring, servant-husband his entire lifetime to make his wife truly feel beautiful. Men who are younger and older than you need someone from whom they can learn the intensely spiritual art of romancing their wives.

Will you be available for the men who need to be equipped in this fundamental area of discipleship? Would it even occur to the men in your church that you might know something about romancing a woman? You ought to be one of the first people they turn to for help in this area.

You’re never not sexual

Our sexuality is not something that is turned off and turned on depending on the occasion. We were created with a sexuality that is always with us. It’s as much a fundamental, pervasive aspect of our humanity as our embodiment or our psychology. So the question is not whether we’re sexual or not, but what we do with the sexuality that we bring with us everywhere we turn.

My hope and prayer? That my sexuality is directed exclusively and passionately toward my wife to such a degree that this fact is obvious to others. That this inspires hope for better marital intimacy for others. That this makes women comfortable around me. That this makes the men know that I can help them learn to romance their own wives with this same exclusive passion.

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Church Planters Don’t Get One of These Coupons

My wife recently invented a new Coupon for herself.

Every few months, she declared, she is entitled to a coupon that allows her to skip church for no reason whatsoever, whenever she feels like it.

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I was instantaneously impressed. I admired her boldness and the irrefutable logic that, though unspoken, obviously undergirded her declaration.

She is not just the pastor’s wife; she is the church planter’s wife. She’s in a till-death-do-us-part with the man with whom the buck stops. She’s in a for-richer-or-poorer with the man who may not have a buck to show for his work if it doesn’t take root. She’s in an in-sickness-or-in-health with the man whose health may suffer from the work he’s called to, and who isn’t allowed to just get sick of it and not show up.

I don’t get any of those Coupons.

I have to plan for my absences, delegate responsibilities in order to take a vacation, and have a fallback plan in the event that I get food poisoning. I’ve shared leadership and worked to cultivate communal ownership from the very beginning. I’ve intentionally worked to create a culture in which I’m not the center of attention. I’ve challenged our people to increasingly high levels of responsibility.

But still. Everyone else can present their Coupon. Now, even my amazing wife can. But I cannot.

That’s okay.

You can’t be upset about the unique responsibility that comes with the unique privilege of being a church planter. In fact, when others present their Coupon, you shouldn’t even be disappointed. There’s other roles in each of their lives in which they have no Coupon. This is yours.

If you’re going to be fretful every time a loyal, committed, down-in-the-trenches-with-you friend and co-laborer presents their Coupon, you need to not become a church planter. If you’re already a church planter and you’re fretting about the Coupon, you need to seriously assess whether you are in the wrong line of work.

Make it a practice: every time someone presents their Coupon, pause and thank Jesus that he has blessed you with the unique privilege of being a church planter. Thank him for the fierce loyalty and camaraderie of the Coupon Presenter. Thank him for your wife’s boldness in remembering that she is a Coupon Holder. Thank him for the other areas of your calling in which you get to be a Coupon Holder.

And then smile and breathe easy. You have a great job. A great calling. And great people.

Thank Jesus for all that.

“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lordyour labor is not in vain.”  – Paul, Couponless Church Planter.