Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Saving the Story

Saving Private Ryan is one of my favorite movies. It's a powerful World War II film about a small band of U.S. soldiers who are ordered to journey behind enemy lines to retrieve Private James Ryan after three of his brothers are killed in separate engagements (and all within days of each other). Ryan's would-be rescuers are initially resentful of their dangerous task, questioning why the life of a single ordinary soldier—who they've never even met—carries more weight than all of their lives combined. Somewhere along the way, though, the mission becomes more than just saving Ryan: The band of searchers also seek personal redemption, desperately striving to accomplish one decent thing, to regain a measure of their humanity amidst a multitude of unspeakable acts, to “earn the right to go home.” It's an incredible story about sacrifice and redemption with several unforgettable scenes.

Stay with me. I'll do my best to come to the point shortly.

Now suppose, for a minute, I ask two people (We'll call them Kate and Greg) what Saving Private Ryan is about. Let's pretend Kate has only seen the film once, while Greg is the movie's all time “biggest fan.” How about we go a bit further and say Greg has seen Saving Private Ryan no less than 100 times, he knows every line, and can even do a spot on Tom Hanks impersonation. His enthusiasm for the film has prompted him to become a World War II history buff who can elaborate in great detail about nuanced 20th Century European politics, precise troop deployment and military tactics during the invasion of Normandy, and he can even tell me what Himmler's favorite color was. Greg went so far as to become fluent in German, so he wouldn't need any of the subtitles. Now suppose our first person, Kate, after only one viewing, can more or less tell me what the movie is about (though she may have forgotten some of the character's names and certain details here and there) while Greg, on the other hand, is completely unable to explain the plot (even in the most simplest terms). Lets say Greg (who, remember, can act out every individual scene) earnestly describes Spielberg's gritty war film as a “romantic comedy.” Anyone who's seen the film, with its graphic violence and sombre tone, knows Greg is way out to lunch with his description. Given what we know about Kate and Greg, which of the two would you say has a firmer grasp of the story? Now suppose we're talking about a much more significant story than Saving Private Ryan. A similar occurrence to what I've just described with Greg, our fictional “movie buff,” unfortunately seems to happen way too often when Christians attempt to tell the story of God. They may be extremely well versed on several of the individual components, but they're, in many cases, tragically unable to identify the main beats of the narrative or even the overarching point of it all.

The Disconnect

One of the reasons for this inability to see the big picture is due to the disjointed way in which we typically learn the story (or better said, the way we learn the stories). N.T. Wright, in How God Became King, discusses how we tend to miss the forest for the trees in our reading of the four gospels, and I think the same can be said for our reading of the whole story. In Sunday School, we're taught moral lessons from the biblical characters' exploits (courage in the face of persecution, for example, through the tale of Daniel and the lion's den, learning to trust Jesus as Peter steps out of the boat, etc.). And then later in “big church,” we learn important theological concepts like the nature of the Trinity, the sufficiency of the cross, and so on (We tend to work backwards, though, using the stories as explanations and evidences for the important doctrines that we've isolated and to reinforce our resulting sophisticated theological models). Unfortunately, we quickly develop tunnel vision (the kind that has allowed Christians through the ages to justify the genocidal underbelly of “manifest destiny,” slavery, segregation, rabid nationalism, social isolation, consumerism, apathy toward refugees and immigrants, pursuing safety and security over the Gospel, etc.). The simple truth is we tend to live our lives based on our perception of what the story is about (including where it's all headed), even if the narrative we're operating under was merely Frankenstein-ed together in our subconscious from all the loose bits and pieces.

Maybe to me the story is best described as a low-budget indie film that gives an artsy close-up of my own “personal salvation” (in which the original widescreen narrative is conspicuously truncated, I'm the main character, and passages like Jeremiah 29:11 were obviously written with me in mind). It could also be more of a buddy comedy that follows me and my wisecracking, pocket-size Jesus as I’m “tossed to and fro” on a wild romp through relativism (In this version I'm too “authentic” for organized religion, so I pretty much improvise the story all by myself as I go). Perhaps I see the story as the feel good movie of the summer that whimsically chronicles my prosperous “best life now.” Maybe I’m at the other end of the spectrum, and it’s an intense thriller that’s built around a great escape theme (where my role in the unfolding narrative is to hunker down in this present liberal “hellhole,” withdraw from society, gather as much “helpful intel” from questionable pseudo news sources as possible, and wait for the hero to suddenly and dramatically break me out and relocate me to a beach in Tahiti). Perhaps I see the story of God unfolding like a political propaganda film that equates the U.S. to the kingdom of God and nationalistic endeavors of “making America Great again” with the Great Commission (in this script, the epic “spiritual battle” between the elephant and the donkey is center stage). I guess I could even see it as a bizarre sci-fi, in which the audience is frequently asked to suspend its disbelief, as nothing in the story makes any sense (I’m looking at you, Joseph Smith). Some say it’s a “love story.” We're probably getting warmer (It ends with a wedding after all). But if it’s a romance, it’s no Sleepless in Seattle or The Notebook by any stretch. It would have to be much more one-sided, something like When Hosea Met Gomer.

Establishing the Story's Important Landmarks

Back when I was an art student, my figure drawing instructor would teach us to roughly block out our construction lines and basic forms before drawing in the details and shading. One of the marks of a novice is how they're always too eager to move on to the fine tuning before laying a proper foundation, and it shows in their finished composition (No amount of shading can make up for a poorly constructed and disproportioned figure). The figure we're drawing here is Jesus. He frames the unfolding story from Genesis to Revelation. He's the Author, the Protagonist, the Beginning and the End.

So here's my best attempt at identifying the main beats of his story:

The story began with God (the only Hero in the narrative)
He created an Ideal universe by the power of his Word
Humans were made in his image as his representatives (God's plan is to reign over his creation through his human administrators). They were instructed to multiply and fill the earth.
A single law was given…
Followed by rebellion/exile/bondage/death (With the rejection of the Tree of Life, all of creation was broken and heaven and earth were torn apart)
A broken man and his family were chosen as representatives to a rebellious humanity (God is set on his original plan to reign over his creation through his image bearers). He promised to multiply them and bless the whole earth through this man’s Seed.
An expanded law was given…
Followed by continuing cycles of rebellion/exile/bondage/failure
God sent his Son, just as he promised, as a descendant of the man “who believed” and as a stand-in for his inadequate family. He accomplished on their behalf the task of keeping God’s law and reconciling the Creator and his broken creation (by way of his life, death, and resurrection). As the only obedient image-bearer (the perfect Representative), he reclaimed the family of faith’s original birthright and vocation (which also happened to be humanity’s original birthright and vocation) and dealt a fatal blow to rebellion and death.
Everyone who acknowledges God’s Son as the rightful King is invited to participate in his kingdom as redeemed and restored representatives. These redeemed kingdom people—who are collectively an extension of the King, his “body,” his “church,” his “bride”—are the true family of faith as they are marked, empowered, and led by his Spirit and instructed to multiply and fill the earth (by sacrificially and incarnationally declaring and demonstrating the story of what God has accomplished through his Son).
He writes his law on renewed hearts...
And by God's grace, his renewed people inherit obedience/reconciliation/freedom/LIFE (and the mended become menders).
All authority has been given to the King. He oversees his advancing kingdom, through the power of his Spirit, as he's presently seated at the right hand of the Father.
The human rebels who tragically opt out of God’s active redemptive plan for his universe, along with the instigator, will be judged by the King upon his physical return (at which point he will “make all things new” by raising the dead/swallowing death up forever, banishing evil from his universe/fully restoring his creation, completely reunifying heaven and earth with his presence, and submitting everything to his Father).
I see the story of God as a big-budget (considering that the Director has literally poured his blood, sweat, and tears into its production), sweeping, redemptive story of how God is taking back his rebel world through the person and work of Jesus.
Core Themes
There are several significant themes threaded through God’s story. I’d like to briefly highlight a few. Redemption and restoration are among the most frequently reoccurring themes: that is taking something spoiled, spent, wasted, and ruined and making it new again (usually at great cost). God’s propensity toward redemption and restoration is illustrated on just about every page of Holy Scripture. He is gloriously inefficient in his stubborn refusal to simply scrap broken things and start again.
One of my personal favorites is the underdog theme. God has a noticeable affinity for the long shot. He often takes the youngest, weakest, unskilled, outsiders, never gonna happen, lowliest tribe, least likely, lost causes and losers and makes them into kings, prophets, freedom-bringing, giant-slaying, miracle-working, champions of God. He brings his best news to shepherds, beggars, orphans, widows, the marginalized, and the outcasts. In God's kingdom, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16), and the King will wash their feet. “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts,” says Mary, the mother of Jesus, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51b-53). God's own Son comes to us from a poor family, a marginalized ethnic group, laid in an animal feed trough, and raised in a hick-ville, backwoods part of Judea, formerly uneducated, and, for all intents and purposes, homeless (“he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him”—from Isaiah 53:2). According to Paul there is a method to the Creator's madness, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Another reoccurring theme in God’s story (and the mechanism by which he carries out redemption and allows for restoration) is this idea of substitution: a person or a people standing in for others (this is no doubt difficult for individualistic Americans to accept, but none of the story makes any sense without comprehending God’s thinking on this). The first humans were assigned the task of tending to the world and being God’s go-betweens, his representatives or stand-ins to/from creation. Adam, as our first father, acted negatively in this capacity. In God’s mind, since all of humanity proceeds from this man, there is continuity between Adam and us. All of humanity has inherited his rebellion against God, his failure in the garden (we all subsequently contribute our own personal rebellion as well).
Redemptive human substitutes (as a foreshadowing of the ultimate stand-in) are often used of God to rescue by way of their own suffering. Joseph, as an example, was rejected by his brothers, sold into slavery, wrongly accused and thrown into prison, eventually vindicated, elevated, and ultimately used to rescue his family, the people of Egypt, and most of the Near East. According to Joseph, the whole thing was God’s plan to turn evil back on itself, to bring about good.
Abraham and his family, which eventually became a nation, were also said to serve as a stand-in for humanity. God purposely used Abraham’s family to retell the story on a smaller more intimate scale (he’s a skilled storyteller who knows good stories need characters, faces, and flesh for humans to connect). God promised to bless this family so that they would be a blessing to everyone else. They were to be a nation of priests, or go-betweens, leading the world back to the Creator and mediating between the two. But, as Wright points out, the proposed rescuers needed rescuing themselves. So Jesus (as the descendant of Adam, Abraham, and King David) stood in for all of humanity, but, more precisely, as the heir to David’s throne, he stood in for Abraham’s family of faith (who, in a sense, was standing in for the rest of humanity). That gets a bit convoluted, but it’s important to understanding the progression of the story (how the sub-story of Israel plays into the story of God). The gospels make it clear that Jesus was standing in for Israel, fulfilling their vocation, as he was depicted symbolically retracing their historic steps (He was called out of Egypt, passed through water, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, and so on). At every turn, he was faithful where his ancestors failed (he withstood temptation in the wilderness, he perfectly upheld the law of God, he overcame in the garden). He’s Israel’s divine do-over—and, by extension, he’s humanity’s do-over too.
Another important theme that drives the narrative is God’s desire and promise to dwell among his people. God is of course everywhere to begin with (“omnipresent”), but he hasn’t made his home, his dwelling, everywhere and in the same way (Just as a husband and wife can simultaneously occupy a room, perhaps in a state of disinterest or strife, and yet still fall short of the closeness that God is after). Before Adam’s rebellion, the Creator and his creation enjoy a state of indescribable unity. It’s far beyond just occupying the same space.
This early idyllic state embodies God’s original intent, in which all of creation acts as his temple, his dwelling (a fully unified heaven and earth), and he reigns over the natural world through his human administrators (Genesis 1:26, 28). We can see, then, how the shattering of this paradise, due to human rebellion, causes destructive ripples throughout all of creation.
After the Fall (the rending of heaven and earth), God illustrated his promised return, in the dwelling sense, through a number of artifacts, icons, and “holy” places (the Ark of the Covenant, the Urim and Thummin, the Temple, etc.). These were objects or locations (in which heaven and earth symbolically intersect or “interlock,” as Wright would say) that prophetically pointed forward to the scene described in Revelation when paradise is restored, God comes to dwell among his people on earth, and we see him “face to face.” Solomon’s Temple (as the pinnacle of these holy spaces) illustrated this same longing for a return to Eden, when creation effectively functioned as God’s temple, with numerous pictorial examples of trees, fruit, animals, and nature.
Jesus—a genuine human who is also the exact image of the transcendent Creator—is the ultimate example of heaven and earth intersecting. He is “God with us,” and, as such, he naturally supersedes all the illustrations that came before. In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as the true Temple of God. He tells the Samaritan woman at the well (in response to her question about where one should worship the God who dwells in heaven) that a time is coming (and has come) in which location will no longer be an issue. Through the person and work of Jesus (which includes the sending of his Spirit), God has extended this heaven-and-earth-intersecting phenomenon (illustrated in “spiritual hotspots,” so to speak, like the Temple, but truly realized in Christ) to everyone who wants in. This present existence—being a Spirit-filled extension of the Living Temple, a mobile, kingdom-bringing spiritual hotspot—is merely a taste of what’s to come.
The full consummation of this theme comes with the physical return of Jesus and the complete restoration of his creation. At which point, he will “dwell” with his people in a freshly restored and seamlessly reunified, heaven and earth. The story of God, then, is a long and painful round about trip back to the beginning. Well, almost. It’s a bit more than just ending up back home where we started. Paradise begins with the early seeds (two image-bearers and endless potential) of what God ultimately envisioned and is finally reborn with a whole city, made from “living stones,” of redeemed and restored administrators who possess intimate knowledge regarding the weight of rebellion, the sting of death, the high cost of redemption, and the unfathomable distance our King will go to put things back on track.
Simple Steps Forward
We might have added a third character to Kate and Greg: Let's call him Phil. Phil has really only seen about ten cumulative minutes of Saving Private Ryan (He was in the bathroom, getting snacks, talking, and sleeping through the rest). He probably still has a strong opinion about the story, though. And if any questions come up, Phil will likely ask Greg (he's the expert after all). One of the most immediately helpful remedies for the mass confusion surrounding the story of God is for all Christians to simply see the whole movie. I’m a slow reader, myself, and getting through all 66 books can definitely seem like a daunting task for a newcomer (especially Numbers), but a through-the-Bible-in-a-year format (in which the whole Bible has been conveniently broken up into 15-minute daily readings that correspond to a calendar year) has really been helpful to me (it’s exciting to start spotting repeating themes and important parallels, especially when you progress through the Old and New Testaments concurrently). There are also a bunch of great audio and video options to have Scripture spoken to you on your computer or smartphone if reading isn’t your thing (You can even find one with a British accent for when you’re feeling particularly classy). Don't be dissuaded by those who imply anything short of reading from a page is somehow a less “spiritual” method of learning the story (especially if you're an auditory or visual learner). I recommend changing versions each year, too, in order to have a fresh look at something that may already be familiar to you (I like the NIV and ESV in most cases, but I also enjoyed reading God’s story by way of the NLT this last go around). The big idea is to consume and metabolize the story, though, in whatever format compliments your individual learning style.

It’s a little trickier if it turns out we’re Greg, the confused film enthusiast, who already considers himself an expert. It’s incredibly difficult, once we’ve firmly established in our mind that Saving Private Ryan is a romantic comedy, and spent years interpreting each of the individual grisly scenes with that understanding in mind, to then humbly step back and look again with new eyes. There are many of us who, like Nicodemus, need to unlearn what we've learned so we can start over from the beginning. Jesus of course commended the “Gregs” for their thoroughness in some areas. Greg's extensive historical knowledge, for example, could potentially give him a greater appreciation for the film (a depth that Kate may not experience with her single viewing and lack of background info). It's awesome if one has studied Hebrew and Greek and given a lot of thought to historical context and complex theological concepts. But Jesus also sternly rebuked the Gregs of his day for being overly attentive to small things while neglecting the “weightier,” or “more important,” aspects of the law (the aspects that reveal God's heart for “justice, mercy, and faithfulness”—Matthew 23:23). I've read and heard many respected teachers and theologians who, despite their extensive biblical knowledge, sometimes express gross ignorance about core themes of the story of God (as seen in many of their conclusions, allegiances, and endeavors). Our mastery of the individual components is pointless if, like Greg, we fail to comprehend the overarching story.

Learn to tell a 3-5 minute version of the Story of God from Genesis to Revelation (Just thinking about the overarching story and how best to tell it is incredibly good for us). Practice with other Christ-followers, and ask for feedback (People aren't always hearing what we think we're saying, so this becomes a very helpful exercise). If we've succumbed to the story of God—been transformed by the good news of his better kingdom—then we need to be ready to explain to onlookers just exactly what's happening (not only within our own lives, but what God is up to in the world and where it's all headed). I've heard it said, "The Gospel found you on its way to someone else." Become a great story teller, like Jesus, and share his good news often and in everyday life. Be familiar enough with the story to be able to contextualize the Gospel to your hearer's specific brokenness (the story doesn't change, but what we emphasize and how we deliver it should be customized as the Holy Spirit leads us). Jesus addressed a promiscuous woman's underlying longing, for example, by offering “living water” that would satisfy her true thirst. In an earlier encounter, he told a jaded theologian that he would need to start over and be “born again” (this time, by way of the Spirit). Jesus also invited a young rich man of power to give it all up and find his treasure and identity in the true King instead.

A film like Saving Private Ryan has an actual story that the writer, director, cast and production team are trying to tell. We, as the audience, aren’t at liberty to just rewrite the movie as a slapstick comedy, a horror film, or a western. We’re of course free to create our own stories, but we shouldn’t commandeer or misrepresent someone else’s story. All the more, we should take the time to get God's story right. Remember that our understanding of the story will inform how we live our lives (for better or for worse). So let's invest in developing a strong foundation built around the main beats of the narrative and a firm grasp of the overarching themes (It's all well and good to progress on to deeper truths, but we should first get the basics down). Ultimately, it's through the story of God that we come to know him, know ourselves, and become known. As we faithfully read the script, we find that God has written each of us into his epic redemptive tale. But if we fail to see the story unfolding—what God is up to in the world—then we'll undoubtedly miss our cue, and the story will simply carry on without us.

...beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” - Luke 24:27

(The Bible Project has a bunch of great videos that guide you through God's story book-by-book. They just finished their through the Bible series, and they also have some great theme videos. I highly recommend them as a resource.)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Man Up

In the ongoing societal debate over authentic masculinity, we're typically asked to choose between two polarized archetypes: There's the hyper-sensitive, sobbing, modern mess of a man in the one corner and the tough as nails, apathetic cowboy, who knows how to “man up” and get things done in the other. The first man, who is introspective to a fault and tragically indecisive (He'd rather passively “Netflix and chill,” for example, than clearly declare his intentions), has his origins in the notion that masculinity and patriarchy are at the root of the world's woes (i.e. He's not impotent by accident). The second man has been around since the dawn of time. He's mostly the product of broken masculinity and a misguided fantasy of ideal manhood (something like James Bond or Dirty Harry). He's made more noise as of late, though, in lashing back against the societal forces that are aggressively seeking to silence or eradicate him. He's brash, bold, a man of action, eager to throw his weight around, and unencumbered by empathy or compassion (as these “feminine weaknesses” are seen as liabilities). He speaks his mind and takes what he wants. He's center stage in the recent rise of pseudo-masculine politics, a movement that is more enthralled with breaking eggs than actually making an omelet, as a direct rebuke to what is seen as a neutered or feminized approach to important societal issues (i.e. an approach that is viewed as overly concerned with political correctness, emotionality, endless deliberation, and passivity). Men who embody this brand of “masculine strength” are viewed by many (both men and women) as what society now “desperately needs.” But neither of these stereotypical men accurately describe the only truly perfect man to ever walk the earth. And as such they are a distortion and a distraction from God's actual intentions for authentic masculinity.

In my last post, I referred to C.S. Lewis' observation that it's the things which initially have the highest potential for good that, when corrupted, can cause the greatest harm. The feminist critics are unfortunately correct in noting the havoc broken masculinity has wreaked on the earth. The vast majority of sexual assaults and other heinous violent crimes, for example, are overwhelmingly carried out by men. Not to mention the numerous instances of oppression, exploitation, and endless bloody wars that have been fought through the ages in an effort to satisfy some misguided masculine ambition, appetite, or false sense of honor. Too often men find their identity in their status, net worth, profession, ability to “avenge” themselves or others, sexual prowess, and emotional detachment. Things have certainly gone wrong, but let's not be so quick to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. It's only because God's divine plan for men is so lofty—our potential so remarkable—that our perverted, post-Eden masculinity is now causing such devastation. Our understanding of true manhood is broken, to be sure, but it's not beyond the reach of Jesus' redemptive kingdom ministry.

1. A New Way to View Status/Position: 
James and John infamously had their mom (that's right, their mom) ask Jesus for two ridiculously prestigious positions in his kingdom. This example of self-serving ambition from guys who were already within Jesus' inner circle just goes to show how we can easily seek this stereotypical source of masculine identity even within a “spiritual” context. There's nothing wrong with titles, status, and positions of honor, per se, but these things shouldn't become our identity. Jesus explains, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28).

Becoming the least, the last, and the lowliest isn't just a kingdom-hack for actually—wink, wink—fast tracking to the front of the line (and if we're looking for ways to fast track to the front of the line, then we're still not thinking like the Son of Man). This is simply the way his backwards and upside down kingdom works. Jesus wasn't putting on an act. He wasn't pretending to be humble and more concerned with the needs of others in an effort to demonstrate servant leadership, etc. He was being himself. He was revealing the Father to us.

Fortunately, John seemed to get it later in life. I love how he humbly penned his gospel: He's not “John the Apostle,” “Bishop of Ephesus,” “Son of Thunder,” and the only male disciple to be at the foot of the cross. He didn't waste a lot of time making sure we all know what a big deal he is. He instead brought us his extraordinary eyewitness biography of the God-man (almost anonymously) as simply a disciple “whom Jesus loved.” And this seemed to be more than enough for him.

2. A New Way to Utilize Money/Resources:

Society often weighs a man’s worth by his bank account. Many of our current President’s advocates and admirers, for example, point solely to his net worth as definitive proof that he's qualified to lead. Accumulation of wealth, then, becomes a deep seated source of masculine identity.

Matthew, before becoming one of Jesus’ Twelve, was initially diverted from his divine vocation by his thirst for money. If “Levi” was his given name, as Mark and Luke’s gospels seem to indicate, then he was probably born into the priestly tribe that was charged with tending to the Temple (meaning he was set apart by God for full-time vocational ministry). In becoming a tax collector, he effectively rejected his birthright, turned his back on God, and sold out his family and community. Jesus walked right up to this greedy collaborator (while he was at work, no less) and offered him something more valuable than what he was currently chasing (There’s tremendous poetic beauty in how Jesus, the true Temple, reclaimed Levi for what he was originally intended).

Matthew’s outlook on his earthly assets was instantly transformed. After meeting Jesus, he hosted a massive party in his home so all his greedy friends could meet Jesus, too, and hear about his better kingdom (and I imagine he didn’t skimp on the caterer or the party favors). He’d found the “pearl of great value” (mentioned exclusively in his gospel), the unmatched treasure buried in a field, and he was ready to sell everything he had to pursue it (no matter how financially reckless or insane he appeared to onlookers).

3. A New Perspective of Profession: 
I thought about working this point into the section on status/position (There's certainly a lot of crossover). But I think finding our masculine identity in our profession (i.e. “I'm a firefighter, lawyer, teacher, mechanic,” etc.) is a bit different than finding our identity in our status or position (i.e. “I'm the Senior Branch Manager, Shift Supervisor, Lead Elder, or Head Pastor”), and, as such, it seems to warrant separate consideration.

What do you do?” is usually the first thing men ask each other upon meeting. Our job often defines us (for better or worse), and potentially gives us a deep sense of masculine worth. It's no accident that men put such emphasis on their work. We were meant to be workers, to labor alongside our Father (Genesis 2:5, John 5:17). God has implemented healthy rhythms of both work and rest. Paul even condemns a lazy man who refuses to provide for his family as “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). But we're not meant to find our identity solely in our work, and we're not meant exclusively for the sort of work we tend to give ourselves over to.

I love how Jesus transitioned Peter from viewing himself as a fisherman to a “fisher of men.” He exchanged simple profession for kingdom vocation. We have examples of Peter fishing during and after Jesus' public ministry. Paul and Aquila made tents to pay the bills, Simon was a tanner, and Cornelius was a career officer. But after meeting Jesus, these men no longer sought identity in these professions. Their professions became the means by which they could pursue their true vocations as disciple makers and Gospel declarers and demonstrators.

If we have likewise succumbed to the all-encompassing good news of God's better kingdom then we should now also view ourselves in light of our true identity and vocation in Christ: We're now “ministers of reconciliation” who drive buses, “priests” who teach high school math, “ambassadors” who appraise property, and “evangelists” who make blended frappuccinos with extra whipped cream.

4. A New Way to Pursue Justice:

The 1st Century Roman occupiers of Jesus’ day were at times brutal, emasculating, and unjust. Roman soldiers were legally allowed to grab a random Jew off the street and force them to carry their gear for up to a mile (hence Jesus’ controversial command for his followers to joyfully go an “extra mile”). They were also known to flippantly crucify innocent people of occupied territories as a show of raw force or to make a political point.

Simon (not Peter or the tanner—turns out there were a lot of guys named “Simon”... and “James”... and “Judas”), who was apparently a Zealot, may have initially belonged to a group of Hebrew nationalists who couldn't sit idly by in the face of such injustice. Simon likely hated his Roman oppressors with every fiber of his being. He was probably willing to die—to kill—to actively resist them. A man’s strong sense of justice and subsequent need to “do something about it” is undoubtedly from God (we’re made in his image, after all, and originally meant to be caretakers of creation). However, it’s easy to see (easy to see in others anyway) that our sense of justice is often skewed (and most frequently awakened by personal injury to our pride, more so than from a genuine zeal for God’s perspective of things).

Jesus gives Simon new purpose as a reconciler, a new way to pursue justice, and a willingness to leave vengeance to God. We don’t know much about Simon’s life, but tradition has most of the Apostles being martyred in far off lands as they faithfully carried out the Great Commission. This means that Simon, who had at this point bought into another kingdom, would’ve missed the epic Jewish-Roman wars of the early second half of the 1st Century (in which a violent Zionist uprising visited upon the Romans their own brand of brutality and temporarily restored political sovereignty over Judea to the Jewish people). Before meeting Jesus, this once in a lifetime opportunity to finally strike back at the invincible Roman Empire would’ve probably been the unreachable height of Simon’s youthful aspirations. After meeting Jesus, however, Simon simply had better things to do.

5. A New Way to View Women:

Jesus' masculinity wasn't threatened by women. He didn't exploit or exclude them (two common, polarized male responses to femininity that ironically result from the same fears and insecurities). He received them as “sisters,” fellow image-bearers, and partners in his kingdom ministry. He didn't condescend to them with sermons laced with lighthearted, yet demeaning, gender stereotypes that subtly let them know they should leave the spiritual heavy lifting to the men (a stark contrast to many of our modern well-intentioned but at times patronizing “women's ministries” that often consist of little more than tea parties, crafting, and bake sales). There were many women who traveled with Jesus and were even among his inner circle (Luke 8:1-3). Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, was said to have “sat at Jesus' feet” (Luke 10:39). This was a Hebrew idiom describing a disciple and rabbi relationship. He equipped and commissioned these women to be world-changers. Jesus' scandalous practice of including and elevating women in his ministry was unprecedented in Jewish culture (It would've even been foreign to Roman and Greek culture in the 1st Century).

Jesus' straightforward confidence in his interaction with women was offensive to some and startling to most. After his one-on-one conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, for example, his male disciples seemed to be quietly on edge at Jesus' social impropriety (John chapter 4). “What could he possibly want with this woman,” was their burning unspoken question? They must have projected their own broken masculinity onto Jesus, as the Pharisees did, wrongly assuming his perspective of women was the same as theirs (in which case, his motives couldn't possibly be perceived as pure). It certainly didn't help Jesus' shaky standing with his conservative critics when ex-prostitutes interrupted swanky V.I.P. dinner parties to weep over and kiss his feet. But he didn't seem to lose any sleep over his critics' conjectures. His conscience was clear (John 8:46), and his identity was secure (John 8:14).

No doubt God has unique roles for men and women (both within families and within his church, which is to operate as a family), but this biblical truth has too often been used to excuse subtle injustices (women being under utilized, excluded, or marginalized within the family of God—given less honor and compensation while being asked to fulfill similar roles as their male counterparts, etc.) and even outright misogyny. Authentic masculinity, the kind Jesus displayed, doesn't objectify women by viewing them as merely a pleasure to be exploited, a conquest to achieve, or a danger to be ostracized or contained. True masculinity sees women as equal image-bearers (Genesis 1:27), the other half of a whole, and co-heirs to the kingdom.

6. A New Way to Exercise Power/Authority:

Power and authority also play heavily into status and position. I wanted to deal with these separately, however, in order to discuss status/position purely as a source of masculine identity and then handle the way men typically exercise physical and authoritative force—the mechanics of power—as its own topic.

God is not, as the serpent would have our first parents believe, a megalomaniac. His comfort with the delegation of his authority is remarkably humble. He doesn't need assistance of any kind. Yet he creates angelic beings that do his bidding and physical creatures made in his image who he generously entrusts with overseeing his world. He's not lazy or incapable. He engineered the whole universe from scratch and brought it into existence with a Word. His multi-tiered system of power (which includes rebellious angels, broken human leaders, and corrupt governments) coupled with his reluctance to micro-manage, then, can only be seen as a quiet and abiding confidence in his own sovereignty. It's those who are insecure about what little power they have, in fact, who are most likely to obsess over it and to hoard it from others.

Jesus, at one point, expressed his zeal for God's “house” by flipping over tables and driving out the money changers with his homemade whip. And, of course, there's an Egyptian army entombed at the bottom of the Red Sea that made the fatal mistake of crossing Israel's patient-yet-powerful Avenger. Physical force and violence are clearly in God's toolkit (just ask Ananias and Sapphira). But if we read his redemptive story from Genesis to Revelation and walk away seeing the “Slain Lamb” as some sort of macho, kick-ass, Rambo character then we've completely missed the heart of God and the grandeur of the narrative. God's greatness, his strength, is seen most clearly in his inexplicable restraint. He can and does at times destroy his enemies, but he also goes to great lengths as he demonstrates unfathomable grace and humility in painstakingly transforming them into friends. It's his mercy and power of persuasion that sets him apart from us. Violence we understand. An expression of infinite power in fragile flesh, however, is baffling and disarming. And a servant King who is paradoxically “lifted up” as he lays his life down for his rebel subjects is world changing.

7. A New Way to Approach Emotional Vulnerability:

Boys from a young age are often taught that emotional attachments are “unmanly.” They're teased when they kiss their mothers goodbye, for example, and soon learn to stop if they want to be taken seriously by their peers. Men are chided by each other when they publicly express affection to their girlfriends and wives, as well. Many parents won't even let their young boys model what are seen as “feminine” nurturing behaviors at play (like tending to baby dolls). They may be encouraged to “man up” if they express too much empathy or sadness. The societal message is clear: Emotional vulnerability is a “weakness” that strong men cannot afford. We must learn to be distant, detached, and apathetic if we're to align with popular notions of masculinity (with an emotionally disengaged character like James Bond, who proudly never gives his heart to any of the numerous women he beds, being considered the ideal man among men).

God is the most powerful Being in existence, and he humbly wears his heart on his sleeve. His willingness to become emotionally vulnerable (and physically vulnerable—even mortal—in the incarnation) is at the heart of the Gospel. He's strong enough to engage, to open himself up to the hurt that comes from caring for others, to risk the pain of clearly declaring his affection for fickle creatures who often reject him. And his Son is no different.

Jesus allows himself to feel things deeply (regularly moved by “compassion,” intensely “angered” over hypocrisy and injustice, and mourns over human suffering), but he's not overrun or crippled by his emotions. He weeps, anguishes, and pleads with his Father in Gethsemane for hours, allowing all of the terror and despair to wash over him, and then courageously stands up to meet his tormentors with a fixed resolve (looking forward to the joy that waits for him in the outcome).

That historic night was full of the typical sort of men (Annas, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, Herod, Pilate, Judas, and Peter), who leap into action, who set aside compassion to do “what needs to be done,” to bring about the “greater good,” by exerting force and leveraging power (there were also, of course, the cowardly kind who were paralyzed by fear). For all their best intentions, all their “manly” effort, they once again came up empty (just as all the men who came before them have, who’ve striven in the same way since the dawn of time). But Jesus accomplished more in his deliberate act of passive resistance (refusing to defend himself, refusing to fight back, willingly being brutalized, bravely embracing vulnerability)—by becoming a lightning rod for humanity’s evil, absorbing all of it into himself, and allowing it to crush him—than any man who came before or after him. He wasn't the sort of manly messiah they wanted (or even the manly messiah we still want, judging from the popularity of those who preach a macho Jesus who conforms to typical one dimensional notions of masculinity), not like the militant “messiahs” who came before and after (like John of Gischala or Simon bar Giora, who led armed uprisings during the Jewish-Roman wars that ended in the obliteration of Jerusalem, a tragic outcome that Jesus had previously foreseen and wept over).

Time to Man Up

It’s not that Jesus was “effeminate,” cowardly, or passive—that he wasn’t/isn’t a fighter (He's the manliest man to ever walk the earth); It’s that he redefines the fight and how we’re to effectively engage (not being overcome by evil but, instead, overcoming evil with good). Jesus redefined what it is to be human and, more specifically, what it is to be a man. We must reject the two archetypal hollow men (the “impotent” and the “apathetic”) that society is eager to spoon feed to us. Jesus is the third option. As the prototype, he demonstrated a better way to view our masculine identity and purpose, and, by way of his life, death, and resurrection, he's graciously made this revolutionary “new man” accessible to us.

Only one question remains: Are we man enough to follow him?

Monday, January 2, 2017

Good News for the Gender Confused and Sexually Perverse


It’s no secret that Jesus was often criticized for the scandalous company he kept. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor,” he would say “...but the sick” (Mark 2:17). At the heart of his naysayers’ agitation was the still-popular notion that the world can be neatly divided into two types of people: “generally decent folks” and “reprobates.” Jesus was, of course, being chided for apparently not knowing the difference. But he doesn't at this point rail against his critics' self-righteous presumption (though he certainly does elsewhere). He instead clearly identifies who he came to save. So it's up to us, then, to answer the simple spiritual triage question: Do we see ourselves among the “not too bad” crowd, as the Pharisees did? Perhaps, in our estimation, we're needing a band-aid on our skinned knee, a lollipop, and not much else. Jesus doesn't have time for this sort. He didn't come for skinned knees. Or do we rightly identify with the filthy band of reprobates, deplorables, perverts, hemorrhaging, and hopelessly broken people that Jesus did come to rescue and restore? It’s no use simply paying lip service to the answer we know we should give—the answer we learned in Sunday School. He sees right through our false humility and empty piety. The truth is, we're all tremendously broken. Humanity's universal rebellion, along with the death and decay that follows, comes early on in the redemptive story that God is telling. The cancerous and debilitating effects of the fall permeate every aspect of our being. It's especially helpful to keep this in mind when we're discussing the highly emotionally charged topics of gender and sexuality. Though our brokenness will inevitably manifest in a myriad of different ways, we're all undoubtedly sexually perverse and gender confused individuals who are desperately in need of a Savior
Human beings, both male and female, were created in God's image. The first couple was charged with overseeing creation as his representatives and producing enough multi-generational offspring to eventually fill the whole earth (Not a bad gig). God gifts this man and woman with sex as a sign of their life-long partnership (as two individuals literally and figuratively become “one flesh”), the necessary means by which they could carry out their divine mandate (along with a generous sampling of God's creative power), and an unparalleled source of shared pleasure. They are described as two halves of a whole, with neither being able to fulfill their unique roles apart from the cooperative assistance of the other. We find that the Gospel is also woven into this union: The husband and wife are meant to beautifully illustrate the unbreakable bond between Christ and his Church. This first couple is completely and selflessly vulnerable with each other and unashamed. Of course, as already mentioned, things famously take a turn for the worse when these prototypical image-bearers foolishly reject the Tree of Life in favor of a lie that promises them what they already had from the start. Instead of becoming more like their Creator, they spiral down into chaos. All of creation, including every aspect of the human body and psyche, is in some way corrupted by this tragic event. As a result, most of our initial preferences and proclivities are now in direct rebellion to God's original design (So Lady Gaga is correct in saying we're “born this way,” but we certainly weren't created “this way”).
Forgive the brief detour, but I think we'll need to address a common theological misconception regarding the body and the physical world that further muddies these already culturally clouded waters. Unfortunately, many Christians have unknowingly embraced a very Gnostic understanding of things (i.e. the physical world is irredeemable and meant to be supplanted by a superior spiritual world) that incorrectly sees the physical body as merely incidental to the immortal soul, or simply a vehicle for “who I really am” underneath. This idea that our bodies are something like an afterthought, a disposable accessory for our non-corporeal soul, is completely at odds with the historic, Christian Faith. “God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also,” is what Scripture says (1 Corinthians 6:14). Likewise, Job adds, “after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another” (from Job 19:26-27). A future resurrection (which is, by definition, a physical event) and the eventual restoration of creation is at the heart of the original story (a controversial proposition, to be sure, even in the 1st Century). God loves the physical world and the physical creatures he made to inhabit it. You might remember how he once deemed it all “very good.” The story of the Bible, then, is about how far he'll go to rescue his rebel world, to put it all back to the way he originally intended (so the story can finally proceed in the right direction). Our physical bodies are certainly corrupted by the fall and, as such, are in need of redemption and restoration, but they're also—by God's design—an integral part of who we are as humans. He's intentionally crafted our bodies (along with our specific biological distinctions) with particular care and divine purpose.
I believe it was C.S. Lewis who once made the point that it's the things with the greatest initial potential for good which, when corrupted, do the greatest harm. He explains how a cow, for example, has very little capacity to do much good or bad; but a human, on the other hand, can do both to greater extent; and an angelic being, gifted with extreme power and insight, certainly even more so. Likewise, the immense God-given potential of sex; as a source of life, pleasure, oneness and intimacy, and a beautiful metaphor of the fellowship we can have with our Maker; can inversely, when corrupted by human rebellion, become a boundless source of exploitation, oppression, violence, isolation (ironically), obsession, and numerous other profoundly destructive and dehumanizing attitudes and behaviors.
It's not enough to assume that God's plan for sexuality is automatically satisfied in a life-long monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman (although anything less than this would, of course, be falling short of his definition of divinely-sanctioned physical intimacy). And most of our understanding of gender comes from arbitrary cultural constructs (In other words, we can't assume that because our boys love baseball and BB guns and our girls exclusively play with Barbie dolls that we've got it right). He clearly has more in mind. Therefore, humility and biblical accuracy require us to have a more precise understanding of God's intent (and, inversely, a broader definition of sexual perversion and gender confusion) than we currently seem to have. Don't get me wrong, It's appropriate to passionately advocate for the Creator's original good design. But, in doing so, I think we inevitably tend to aggressively harp on the forms of perversion that are most foreign to our own experience (and therefore more offensive to our individual and collective biases) while at the same time overlooking the many harmful deviations with which we more closely identify (contributing to a hypocritical inconsistency in our “moral outrage” and the development of a pharisaical “us” and “them” perspective). Same-sex sexuality, for example, is a clear deviation from God's plan, but, then, so is the more garden variety human tendency toward voyeurism (and a multi-billion dollar porn industry has resulted from the decisively greater prevalence of the latter perversion). Only we usually don't boycott, picket, or even recognize voyeurism as a perversion of God's plan for human sexuality (particularly in the more subtle examples of voyeuristic themed marketing and entertainment that regularly invite us to objectify people, especially women, in exchange for our attention as they pitch us some “new-and-improved” toothpaste, sitcom, or charbroiled burger). At the darker end of the same swamp, millions of people—mostly girls and women—are enslaved (psychologically and physically), trafficked, and raped in an ongoing effort to meet the insatiable demand of ravenous voyeurs, who have convinced themselves that this perverse arrangement they have with the human commodity on the other side of their screen is both harmless and equitable.
We could certainly spend a lot of time debating the various degrees of perversion (i.e. how far off from God's original design is each behavior, orientation, and so forth, in relationship to the others), but this doesn't seem very productive. I imagine our “unbiased” analysis would largely be compromised by our own particular taste for sin anyway. While I think we'd be right to conclude that a pedophile or a sadistic rapist's sexual brokenness is manifesting in a more dangerous way than, say, a necrophiliac (to use some extreme examples); How can we say that a typical lesbian, for instance, is definitively more perverse than a heterosexual “playboy,” like Hugh Hefner (or the millions of men who envy him)? The one who views sex as a conquest and people as trophies is blasphemously (and probably unwittingly) invoking the divinely crafted, physical language of life-long covenant—again and again and again—flippantly with each subsequent partner (1 Corinthians 6:15-16). Just because a particular form of sexual perversion is more prevalent than another does not mean that it is somehow more “natural” (in terms of God's original intent for humans). Does a transgendered or transvestite image-bearer have more or less confusion about God's plan for gender than a traditionally masculine man with misogynistic tendencies (especially in light of our unconventional Founder who scandalously discipled women and elevated them to previously unheard of places of honor and influence within his upside down kingdom)? Have we done a better job of raising our all-American boy, who conforms to traditional male expectations (including a learned apathy that was produced by systemic societal shaming of God-given, yet somehow “unmanly,” attributes like gentleness, compassion, and emotional vulnerability), than the neighbor did raising his son who now wants to wear dresses and be called by a conventionally female name? And is a monogamous, married, heterosexual couple whose twisted perspective of sex is rooted in pride, power, punishment, or currency more closely aligned with the Creator's intent than, say, a polyamorous trio? Rather than arguing about who is the most deviant, it seems we should concede that we're all to some extent filthy and instead focus our energy on the more pressing question of how to get clean.
In regard to the so called “culture wars,” in which conservative Christians seem to be constantly and passionately engaged, we’re regularly picking the wrong battles (holiday coffee cups, restroom access, and baked goods) and employing the wrong tactics once the ridiculous battle lines have been drawn. And the Christian celebrity speakers, musicians, and denominations that are “reinterpreting” their biblical understanding of brokenness, despite their best intentions, are equally unhelpful (not to mention brazen beyond words, considering the stern warning Jesus gave to a 1st Century church that allowed sexual sin to continue in their midst unchallenged—Revelation 2:20-23). In short, I believe the unattended brokenness within the Family of God is causing far more damage than the brokenness without. The sexual immorality, high rates of divorce, and addiction to pornography running rampant within the American Church, even among our shepherds and teachers, is nothing short of tragic. As Peter says, “it is time for judgement to begin with God's household” (1 Peter 4:17a). And Jesus warns that “if the salt loses its saltiness... it is no longer good for anything” (Matthew 5:13). We're called to be a “city on a hill,” a beacon of light amidst the brokenness of Babylon, not a hypocritical pack of political pundits, lobbyists, and picketers. “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” asks Paul. “Are you not to judge those inside?” Rest assured, “God will judge those outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13a).
Our sexuality and gender, though significant aspects of our being, were never meant to completely define us. It's misguided and idolatrous for us to seek our identity in these things. Sometimes even the church elevates sex and marriage to unhealthy degrees (when, ironically, Jesus lived his whole life here on earth as a single, celibate man—saving himself for the next life, for his true Bride). Paul, who had a high regard for God's plan for sex and marriage, also touted the benefits of serving Jesus as a single person (1 Corinthians 7:8, 32-35). The disciple of Jesus who feels an intense same-sex attraction, as an example, yet denies himself or herself in obedience to God's creative order, has genuine camaraderie with the heterosexual brother or sister who never marries and likewise regularly denies themselves in their pursuit of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:13). Regardless of the nature of our particular brokenness, though, we'll be required to regularly deny ourselves in both large and small ways. Marriage is not, as many think, “the remedy” to our numerous sexual perversions. For many, it will only compound the damage caused by their untended, preexisting wounds and misconceptions. But fortunately we're not, as the naturalist would have us believe, merely “intelligent animals” who are forever bound to our primal instincts. We're made in the image of God, and, in Christ, we no longer have to be slaves to our urges. The freedom that Jesus offers in this arena is truly good news.
As we become more aware of our own sexual brokenness and misconceptions about gender, we'll likely also grow in compassion for our fellow image-bearers, especially toward those whose brokenness may manifest differently than our own. Ultimately, the only thing that separates “perverse reprobates” from “redeemed and in-the-process-of-being-restored followers of Christ” is a willingness to repent and to trust solely in Jesus' counterintuitive method for making us whole again (which is really saying the same thing two different ways). To “repent” is to change our mind, to swallow our pride and agree with God that he's right and we're wrong. It's to abandon our rebellion and to instead, through the power of his Spirit, adopt his kingdom rule over every aspect of our lives. Jesus appropriately describes this process as “dying,” as even daily embracing the instrument of our torturous demise, so that he can paradoxically give us new life, his “abundant life”—real LIFE. And repentance is not a one time event. It's a regular rhythm of the true disciple's everyday existence. If we're going to experience the new life that Jesus offers, then we'll need to turn everything that we have, everything that we are (our hopes and dreams, our identity, ideologies, sexuality, and notions of gender—all of it!) over to him. There's no going forward until we do. Porn addicts, prostitutes, playboys, and pious Christians, alike, must all travel the same humble Road if we're to be healed of our sexual perversion and misconceptions. But if we're willing, he's more than able to deliver.

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
And that is what some of you were.”
But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9b-11).