Sloth and Our Lazy Loving

I am in the midst of teaching through a course on The Seven Deadly Sins for the 5th time. This repetition has occasioned something of a seasonal self-audit of my own spirituality. Each time through, the study of each vice (aided mostly by Rebecca DeYoung’s great book on the subject) diagnoses things in me that make me uncomfortable and, hopefully more often than not, repentant.

DeYoung’s fantastic definition of sloth continues to haunt me. Sloth is not laziness, but laziness in loving. Sloth is “resistance to the demands of love.”

We are about as slow and as tardy to love as this sloth is lazy and late in Win, Lose, or Draw:

As I’ve studied the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, my mind has been blown by two dynamics in this respect:

  1. The reality of our creaturely, finite, temporal natures means that we are constitutionally “late” to love–not in the tardy sense, but in the responsive sense. God loves first and best. We love, but any love we give that is worthy of the name is always already a citation, a response to a call that precedes us. This is not bad. It’s good. We are imitative beings through and through.
  2. We are fallen creatures. We are late in another sense. We are lazy in love. We resist love’s demands. We hear and see the speech and action of our Creator-Lover, and we kick against the goads. We instinctively know that if we are to truly receive such love, we will be compelled to give it again. And we know and can name the people in our lives we regard as unworthy of our love. And so we push away the love of the first and best Lover, thinking this releases us from our status as imitative beings. We reject love, so we won’t be compelled to love the unlovely.

I’ve read in several places recently that one major malaise of our current culture is its boredom. Marion suggests (in his own way) that boredom is the result of our systematic resistance to the demands of love. What is left when the receiving and giving of love is eschewed as our ultimate vocation? Boredom. The residue of an always-unsatisfying saturation with entertainment, diversion, distraction.

Our relationships feel like work and so we check out from them—often with entertainment.

But often with work. Busyness is the other side of the Boredom coin.

Or we view our work as something other than a response of love and a reiteration and imitation of that love in the direction of our neighbor, and so we avoid it.

A resolution or two:

  1. Some productivity guru once said that you should swallow a frog first thing every morning. If you do, you can be sure that you’ve done the hardest, most unpleasant thing you’ll do all day, and now it’s done and out of the way. If I know a demand of love faces me, and its demand is less than fully pleasant, I need to swallow that frog. Have the hard conversation. Put down the phone and look the person in the eye. Give myself in full attentiveness.
  2. I need to stop myself before every new vocational task. I need to remind myself that I am doing that task out of love for my neighbor, my colleague, my student, my friend, my children, my wife. I need to imagine the face of the beloved for whom I work, sitting there in the room with me as I work, asking for my love through my work.

All said, to love well, I need to resist my resistance to the demands of love.

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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.

Mastered by Divinity

JL MARION

I’ve long thought that is what the M.Div. degree ought to signify. Listen to Jean-Luc Marion describe what theological work does to us:

Theology always writes starting from another than itself. It diverts the author from himself; it causes him to write outside of himself, even against himself, since he must write not of what he is, on what he knows, in view of what he wants, but in, for, and by that which he receives and in no case masters.

Theological discourse offers its strange jubilation only to the strict extent that permits and, dangerously, demands of its workman that he speak beyond his means, precisely because he does not speak of himself. … One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology. In all senses.

(God Without Being, 1991)

5 Theses on Tim Tebow’s Foray into Pro Baseball

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Photo: nfl.com

1. This dude is freaking huge. Those bulging muscles. Dang. Kudos to him for working hard. The day I quit playing football was the day I quit lifting, running, and eating right.
 
2. People who rip on him should get lives. Everyone is allowed to have a personal brand. His includes being a famous athlete. If his personal brand gains him a place on the Mets Instructional League roster, GOOD FOR HIM.
 
3. It’s called an instructional league for a reason. Hitting a professionally-pitched baseball is one of the hardest things humans could attempt to do. But there is a beloved Cleveland Indian (Yan Gomes) who gets a hit approximately 1/10 of the time he’s at the plate. Whether you think it’s realistic for Tebow to play in the Bigs is irrelevant: he’s in the Minors. WAY down in the minors. Being instructed.
 
4. “Oh, but it’s just a big publicity stunt.” So what? Business is business. Is this any more bizarre than Michael Jordan endorsing tighty whities, or than Michael Jordan’s own foray into pro baseball? Hardly. If the Mets and Tebow think they can make some money, GOOD FOR THEM. This is a business, and it’s entertainment.
 
5. In the end, Tebow is to be commended, because he knows he’ll face all this criticism, and he’s still going for it. He is an *athlete* and as such he’ll fail in some respects and succeed in others. You can’t tell me he doesn’t actually want to play—that it’s *only* a publicity thing, or a money thing. The dude is an athlete, and athletes gonna athlete.
 
Appendix: It’s too bad all this happened just as the Browns lost their starting and backup QBs. Is it too early for Tebow to do a Bo Jackson and sign with the Browns as well as the Mets? He’d be the anti-Manziel.

When Will We Finally be Done Following Jesus?

When we talk about following Jesus, I wonder if we assume that this following is done
with when our earthly days are done; that our following will be over and our chillaxing will commence once we’re over Jordan.  

It’s like we think that spiritual and vocational effort (and aren’t these ultimately the same thing?) are a consequence of the fall, and that one day, in the sweet by and by, we won’t have to work to know Jesus and follow him faithfully.

We are allergic to effort, we champions of grace. But as Dallas Willard has told us, grace is not opposed to effort, but only to earning. In the New Creation, we’ll labor–but not just in our “work.” We’ll work to know and follow hard after Jesus in, through, and after any honest day’s labor. 

We won’t struggle against the world, the sinful flesh, and the devil as we try to know and follow Jesus in the age to come. But exhaustive theological knowledge and unabridged discipleship blueprints will not simply be downloaded into our heads when the trump resounds. Jesus is too mind-blowingly infinite and loving, and his (new) world is too full of places to venture further up and further in, for us to expect our following days to be done when the roll is called up yonder. 

And that means we’re practicing now. 

Coffee and the Skinny Glutton

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It’s fairly easy for me to identify my favorite sins.

I’m currently teaching the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ to both a group of eleventh-graders and a group of faculty. Each capital vice is extremely nuanced in its manifestations and subtle in its habit-forming encroachment upon the soul. And each sin is a fountain from which flows a variety of discrete patterns of transgression. The most fascinating to me are, somewhat startlingly, the that are a little too close to home. Which ones? If you know me, you guessed it: sloth and gluttony.

Sloth will have to wait for another post. For now, gluttony has grabbed my attention like the mention of a cheeseburger around quitting time.

Happily, gluttony doesn’t simply effect people who would vote for pizza for president if they could. It’s satisfying to learn that gluttony embeds itself in the habits of the prissy waif just as it grips the hot dog eating champion.

According to Rebecca DeYoung, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, gluttony not only involves how you eat (ravenously, hastily, excessively, for example), but also what you eat. One type of glutton, of course, eats sumptuously–that is, she eats things that make her feel full. But the other type of glutton fixates on another type of food: exquisitely delicious food.

This fastidious glutton is fixated on taste. Rather than being enslaved by the demands of the belly, the food snob only lets the most delicious things, prepared to her precise specifications, come near her lips.

In Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape teaches his pupil Wormwood how to tempt eaters who are not prone to overeating with this alternative pattern of gluttony. The key, Wormwood learns, is to cultivate an increasing fastidiousness with respect to food and drink. When successfully tempted, the ‘patient’ habitually sends perfectly good sandwiches back to the kitchen with exasperated instructions like “Listen, all I want is …”.

You can see the pride and elitism in this sort of approach toward food. The high-brow glutton says, for all intents and purposes, “All I want is for everything to be precisely according to my tastes. Is that too much to ask?”

Is it too much to ask for a world in which all the nutritional, social, economic, and agricultural dimensions of eating–in which even the humanness of the persons making and serving your food–are bracketed out? Well, yes. It is too much to ask. It’s not difficult to see the fundamentally antisocial nature of this sin, and the god-sized pride in assuming that such a relationship to food and drink is “not too much to ask.”

And so I wonder: is it possible to be a connoisseur, an aficionado, of anything, without becoming a glutton?

I am all the other kinds of glutton in my relationship to all other kinds of food and drink. But I am decidedly high-brow in my coffee tastes. Am I an elitist?

Some have noticed that in the gospels of the New Testament, Jesus is always on his way to a meal, at a meal, or leaving a meal. He eats his way through Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Given that almost everything I do is either done with coffee in hand, or done in the strength of a post-coffee caffeinated state, or done on the way to my next coffee break, coffee is part of the warp and woof of my life in a way that almost no other person, place, or thing is.

The same is true of James Freeman, founder of the esteemed Blue Bottle Coffee–a name revered by baristas here in Seoul, even though most of them have never been in a Blue Bottle cafe. Freeman described his obsession with  coffee to a group of Stanford entrepreneurs recently. One thing that stands out from his talk, apart from his touchy-feely language about coffee culture and his against-the-grain principles of entrepreneurship:

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Freeman is obsessed, not just with coffee, but with control. Control over everything that happens from the purchase of beans to the roasting to the brewing to the tasting experience of the customer.

My friend Sooin, whose sheer knowledge of coffee is astounding (she attended a coffee college for two years), is similarly exacting in her approach to making a great cup of coffee. To watch her work is to watch a careful artist demanding the best of herself.

What’s the difference between these coffee professionals and myself? Sooin and Freeman approach their work as craft and as calling. They are professionals. When I make coffee, I’m an amateur.

I am also a consumer. And here, I think, is the heart of the matter:

What is my attitude when someone makes a cup of coffee for me? What is going on in my head and my heart when Sooin makes me an $8 pour over from a rare bean? When my wife brings me a cup of coffee in bed that she’s not super proud of? When my parents pop a K-cup in the Keurig and bring it to me in their living room? When a tea-drinker serves me instant coffee after they’ve served me a home-cooked meal?

Sooin has actually helped me think soberly about all this. Whenever we’re around her, I find myself peppering her with questions, looking for tips that will improve my coffee-making, and my coffee drinking, game. I ask about coffee origins, and what notes I should be tasting in different coffees. And usually I end up saying , in a disappointed tone, something like: “I wish I could taste the difference between a good cup of coffee and an excellent cup of coffee.”

And then she sets me straight. She reminds me that I am not a coffee professional. I have not been to coffee school. I don’t make my living trying to give people incredible coffee experiences. My relationship to coffee ought to be one of enjoyment. Especially when someone is serving it to me. For her, the professional, that’s the source of joy: when she meticulously controls as many variables as possible to yield a great cup of coffee, and people like me take our first satisfying sips.

It’s true that I am enhancing my enjoyment of coffee as I learn to distinguish and appreciate more and more nuances and subtleties from cup to cup.

But if I approach a cup of coffee, made with care and given to me in hospitality, with a critical spirit, with an air of elitism, and with a readiness to reject it if it’s not to my standards, then I have indeed become a glutton. Even when my experience of someone else’s coffee is dampened by my preoccupation with my own lack of discerning taste buds and faltering tasting-note vocabulary, I teeter on the edge of gluttony.

The vice of gluttony, whether manifested in a ravenous eater or a skinny, self-appointed food critic, consists in an antisocial, self-centered approach to what is consumed. Instead of being received with gratitude, the coffee, the food, or the wine is devoured in a stingy spirit or rejected with a stuck-up lack of gratitude. When one eats and drinks in a way that fails to acknowledge how food and drink is connected to the social act of eating and drinking , one commits gluttony.

I was raised on the slogan “food is love.” Indeed, it is. And coffee, too. May we all reject the self-love of gluttony and receive our food and drink with glad and generous hearts.

Stabs of Sorrow

It’s odd. I’m about as happy as I’ve ever been.

Big-city life is thrilling to me, and Seoul bigger than the biggest city in America. My wife and kids love living overseas. We’re all enjoying learning Korean, more or less. Work is tiring, but fulfilling. I have some fine colleagues and some generous friends. Church life is joyful and familiar: Presbyterian, liturgical, biblical, theological, communal, small, foodly. The kids are flourishing, my wife is wonderful, and the cherry blossoms will bloom in a couple weeks time.

Things really are great. Really great.

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In his memoir of his spiritual journey, CS Lewis writes about occasional, unpredictable experiences that he called “stabs of joy.” He was mostly melancholic, but every once in a great while, he was deeply moved by something otherworldly and joyous, painful because freighted with longing.

I, on the other hand, feel as though I am living in a world of enchantment—things are great, and I’m happy. But every so often I experience not the Lewisian stabs of joy, but rather their opposite: stabs of sorrow.  

I’m rather new at this.

I was new to the unforeseen disappointments of leading a group of prodigals and pilgrims in a shared and local life. I was new to having my influence rendered, in many cases, surprisingly uninfluential.

I was new to seeing families rent asunder up close, and I was certainly new to that peculiar sort of failure one feels when one knows that one’s help didn’t help—especially when help, it seemed, was so desperately needed.

I was new to opening my heart and my life and my home to so many different people. And I was most definitely new to having many of those people close their hearts and lives and homes to me.

And I’m new at the grief and melancholy that now strike unexpectedly, when the sheer awfulness of some particularly awful days in a hard season not so long ago come flooding into my consciousness. Without warning, it all comes back, but somehow stronger and more achy with the passage of time.

I make my attempts to reconcile with the apparent inevitability of it all, which blunts the force of these stabs of sorrow. But even my belated ‘acceptance’ (whatever that means) of these severe providences seems to cement this season in my past and make it always retrievable. My disappointments have become memorialized now; they’re a thing of my historical record, a chapter in my unwritten memoir that gets read aloud to me involuntarily from time to time, whether I like it or not. 

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There are books with titles like Leading With a Limp and The Wounded Healer that sound like they were probably written for punks like me; for people who find themselves—what’s the Christianese word?—humbled. I should probably read those.

There are also many people I know whose present suffering makes my reflection on these stabs of sorrow, situated as they are against a backdrop of steady happiness, feel utterly unwarranted. I should probably remember this.

My grief isn’t utterly overwhelming like the grief of many others. My vocational failure isn’t utterly catastrophic. But since my sorrows stab me every so often, perhaps my grief is a grief that nevertheless ought to be observed. I’m attending to these sorrows when they come upon me. Surely they have something to teach me, even though I suspect at times that the truths I’m meant to learn are ones I already know: fallenness, finitude, frailty.

I take these stabs of sorrow to be indicators that my knowledge of these postlapsarian conditions needs to be deeper still. More personal. It’s not “people” who are fallen, but me. It’s not “the world” that is frail, it’s me. It’s not “creation” that is finite, but me

These stabs of sorrow are no fun, but the creatureliness they underscore is true. And a reckoning with true things, however not-fun, has got to be a good thing. 

“There’s an Opening …”

You can fill an opening. Or you can go through an opening. These are actually two very different openings. I have experience with both.

When I realized there was a position open at a school in Seoul, I imagined the prospects of both excitement and relief. The thought of finally getting a chance to live in a big city thrilled me. The notion of getting rid of most of our belongings tempted me with the beauty of the simplicity it would yield.

From The Guardian, 2011: "Volunteers make kimchi to donate to needy people in front of Seoul City Hall, South Korea. About 2,000 women made 270 tons of kimchi. A pungent dish made with cabbage, other vegetables and chili sauce, kimchi is the most popular traditional food in Korea."

From The Telegraph, 2011: “Volunteers make kimchi to donate to needy people in front of Seoul City Hall, South Korea. About 2,000 women made 270 tons of kimchi. A pungent dish made with cabbage, other vegetables and chili sauce, kimchi is the most popular traditional food in Korea.”

Life itself had gotten really complicated. Relationships, planting a church, homeschooling kids, running a small business: none of these things by themselves were simple to navigate, and navigating them simultaneously was less simple still for me and my wife.

A job opening in Korea meant less complication.

A job opening initially meant, in our case, a chance to earn enough money doing mostly enjoyable work with enough time away from that work to explore an exciting city, country, and region. It meant a chance to send the kids to a great school, which de-complicated my wife’s life, especially.

And that is what the past 5 months has indeed been. Less complicated by far.

“Look! There’s an opening! We’ll fill that slot. We’ll swap this crazy life for that really attractive and simple life.”

This opening has been filled.

But there’s a second sort of opening.

This sort of opening isn’t filled. It is not applied for. It can’t be plugged into. It’s not a job-plus-time-off.

Rather, it’s an opening the other side of which yields a new, unforeseen, and perhaps complicated life. This opening presents itself as a summons to walk the long and hard road with a promise attached that there’s a good end. It’s fraught with danger, not from the surroundings, but from the souls one finds on the other side, volatile souls that will look your soul in the eye and dare you to not turn away from them.

We are just about to head to Thailand for vacation. Though I’ve been working for 5 months, I see this coming vacation as the vacation to cap off the vacation I’ve been on since arriving in Seoul. A vacation, in a way, to end all vacations.

Five months after filling an opening, I’m being called in through an opening. Double-dog-dared to start looking souls in the eye and to allow the eyes of souls to look mine in the eye. Summoned back to a way of being-in-the-world that would please good ‘ole Heidegger because it reckons with death by living in light of it.

A job opening attracted me to vacate a complex life and manage a new rhythm balancing work and leisure. A summons calls me to vacate vacation and enter, once again, but really for the first time, through an opening into a world of souls. The first opening allows me to be either on or off. The second opening challenges me to be either in or out. 

I want in.

I think.

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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The Churched Disciple: When ‘Going to Church’ feels like a Distraction

In my last post, I suggested that many of the Donald Millers of the Christian world would be re-engaged with the local church if our churches gave them a compelling story about why their particular church exists.

photo: Sara McAllister. saramcallister.com

photo: Sara McAllister. saramcallister.com

Now, I’d like to suggest that a church’s broadened, compelling why calls for a integral and tightly-aligned, but diverse, multi-faceted, and sprawling how. If “going to church on Sunday” provokes a blasé response from passionate Christians, then it may be that the church has abandoned some key dimensions of its corporate calling.

Why leads to how

If your church believes most deeply that Jesus wants more than anything else to assemble his people for worship and instruction, and that its corporate calling is therefore to gather people to worship God and instruct them in Christian doctrine, then Sunday for 120 minutes or so will probably do the trick. That will be its how. 

On the other hand, if your church has a more expansive belief about spiritual reality, and a corporate calling as expansive as “the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus for the flourishing of Rock Hill”, for example, then your church is going to have to gather, bless, challenge, equip, and deploy its people across a number of different spheres of kingdom reality.

Worship, or ‘every good work’?

In our case, that means Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation. Because we believe that Jesus is Lord over all, and because we believe that he has entrusted the mystery and power of the gospel to the church, we know that we’ve got a much larger job than providing worship and Sunday School. We need to gather the people of God so that we can open the word of God, teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training one another in righteousness so that every one of us will be fully equipped for every good work. Every good work. That’s what the church is responsible to help the people of God with.

And that’s partly what Donald Miller is grieving over as he looks at the ecclesiastical landscape, and at his local options. He has learned to worship God through his work! He gets something that many Christians never get. And yet he isn’t graced, challenged, or equipped by the church for what he is called to do with roughly half of his waking hours.

We need grace and truth, warm invitation and robust challenge, not just for the good work we’re called to do on Sundays “at church”, but for the pursuit of our neighbors and our networks, and for faithfulness in our spiritual, spousal, familial, educational, and occupational callings.

When ‘going to church’ is a distraction

What I’m suggesting here is this: If our beliefs are too narrow and our ecclesiastical missions are too truncated, our Donald Millers may end up becoming too ‘distracted’ by the glorious expansiveness of their personal kingdom callings to take even 2 hours a week to “go to church on Sunday.”

And I find it difficult to blame them.

In the next few posts, I’ll outline what I believe what a more expansive approach ministry looks like. I’ll discuss what I mean by Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation, and how these or similar ecclesiastical hows can more fully equip God’s people for every good work.

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