Oil, Prayer, and Healing

Some of you might be familiar with the idea of healing prayer, and others may not. The practice comes from James 5:14-15. James tells those who are sick to ask the leaders of the church to anoint him with oil and pray for the Lord to heal.

First, let me explain the oil. The oil is a symbol used throughout the Bible for someone being set apart by God (Ex 28:41), for the presence of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:18; Acts 10:38; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22), and the sign of God’s favor (Ps 45:7). By anointing a sick person with oil we are creating a tangible expression of faith: that the Holy Spirit would come on the person in a unique way to work the Father’s healing power in Jesus’ name. God is the one who heals, the oil is merely a symbol. Like all symbols, the oil points beyond itself to something greater. In this case the healing power of God through the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus.

Second, why healing? When Adam and Eve sinned in Genesis 3 they opened Pandora’s Box. In an excellent book on the subject of sin (called Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be) Cornelius Plantinga compares sin to a parasite, a corrosive agent, and vandalism - among many other pictures. He says that “Sin is disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony” (5). We tend to think that sin is just a particular act to avoid (for example, marital intimacy vs adultery). But, the biblical picture of sin is that of a foreign agent sabotaging every facet of existence. This is why we get sick and why we need glasses. It’s why there is terminal cancer and seasonal allergies. All of creation is caught up in one great Civil War. 

Healing is Part of the Kingdom of God
So, when God comes to redeem humanity he does not just address the soul. Isaiah the prophet described Jesus’ ministry several hundred years before he came. In Isaiah 35:5-6 we’re told that when God comes

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

This same idea is expanded in Isaiah 61 to include nearly every aspect of culture and creation.

When Jesus finally lands on the scene we’re told that his ministry begins with a simple declaration: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand (1:15). From there Mark 1:16-3:6 is story after story of Jesus healing thousands and delivering as many from demons. Each of the gospel writers will go to great lengths to make this connection between OT promises of the Kingdom and the ministry of Jesus (and later, the church). These instances of healing and deliverance are incredible. Yet, In his book on both Luke and Acts, New Testament scholar, Darrell Bock, says, “The important point is not so much the miracles themselves as what they portray (Luke 10:18-20). In Jesus’ ministry, God is present, exercising power through the one he has sent. In Acts, Jesus’ power is expressed through his appointed messengers, which shows that he has been raised and is active. The forces that oppose people meet their defeat and death through Jesus. He can deliver. In other words, physical salvation portrays spiritual salvation."

When we compare the Old Testament descriptions of God’s Kingdom, the gospel’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry and miracles as demonstrating the Kingdom of God. In his shorter book on the Kingdom of God, the late New Testament scholar, George Ladd said this, 

The Age to Come belongs to the future, and yet the powers of The Age to Come have entered into the present evil Age. The Kingdom of God belongs to the future, and yet the blessings of the Kingdom of God have entered into the present Age to deliver men from bondage to Satan and sin. Eternal life belongs to the Kingdom of God, to The Age to Come; but it, too, has entered into the present evil Age that men may experience eternal life in the midst of death and decay. We enter into this enteral life in the midst of death and decay.
— Ladd, G.E. The Gospel of the Kingdom, 71

Earlier in that same book on the subject of “eternal life” he says,

Eternal life has to do with the total man. It concerns not only my soul but also my body. When we finally inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:50), that which is mortal - our physical, frail body - will be swallowed up in life. Eternal life includes the redemption of our bodies. The inheritance of the Kingdom of God means the transformation of these bodies of flesh and blood (1 Cor 15:50).
— Ladd, G.E. The Gospel of the Kingdom, 69

Healing is Offered through God’s People
In Matthew 10:1 he gives this same ministry of healing and spiritual deliverance to the twelve disciples. Then in Luke 10 (chronologically after Matthew 10), Jesus assigns this work to seventy-two others. After the Holy Spirit comes to the whole church in Acts 2 healing is included in the work that God does through his people (3:1-10; 4:12-16; 8:4-7). By the time the book of James is written (c. mid-40’s AD) this practice of healing prayer had become common enough practice for James to provide some direction to the rest of the church. 

So, in summary, why healing? Because in Jesus the power of the age to come has become a real part of the Christian life and community. We pray for healing because we believe (1) that God wants to heal; (2) that healing can be part of the demonstration of God’s Kingdom coming into the present time; (3) Jesus has extended this work to the church (specifically, James 5). 

Straining to Glimpse Resurrection

The following is a contribution I made to City Church's Lent Devotional. The text is Romans 8:22-25, which reads:

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

A heartfelt groan is sometimes better than a sung anthem. Tears are a language that God understands.
— Robert Smith, Jr.

I used to think the trees creaked because the wind blew. It’s a sound easy to miss; drowned by the cacophony of modern life. But if you listen you will hear an all-too-familiar groan: that deep, guttural longing. 

I used to look up at the stars and wish they could tell me what they have seen. I’ve heard rumors of a heavenly choir whose song never ends (Ps 19:1-6). Recently Nasa released recordings of sounds captured in space. Now we know the stars hum a haunting song; hopeful and heartbroken. “All creation has been groaning together,” Paul says (Romans 8:22a). She sighs in hope and agony; “in the pains of childbirth” (8:22b). In both pain and longing creation is groaning because new life is coming.

The song of the stars and groaning of the trees is one we all know. Paul tells us that it’s not only creation, “but we ourselves…groan inwardly” (8:23). Maybe the days are good, but night always comes. Your days may be filled with every kind of fruitful and fulfilling activity. Then night falls. And everything that has scuffed, chipped, gouged, and cracked your heart begins to creep out from the shadows. Every lie you have believed, every hateful word you have spoken, every wrong you have committed, every good you have left undone. They visit us in the night. And we groan. 

We groan because we’re caught between two worlds. The world-as-it-is pulls us one direction and the world-as-it-will-be pulls in another. Part of us wants to run one direction. The rest, in the other. We’re caught between “the sufferings of this present time” (8:18) and our eager, hopeful longing "for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23). Alongside the trees and the stars we stand on our toes hoping to catch a glimpse of what’s to come. We hold our breathe in hope the day is closer than we thought. 

I used to think the trees creaked because the wind blew. Now I know that they creak because they’re straining to get a glimpse of resurrection. 

Four reasons To Read Those You Disagree With

Several months ago, I cleaned out my personal library. Our son was on his way and there was room for my books or him - not both. As much as I love books, I love my son more. Working through all the titles on my shelves I realized something. All of these books were written by people that I agree with.

This bothered me. 

This bothered me because I know that small streams are made of small springs. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, puts it another way. He says,

When you listen and read one thinker, you become a clone… two thinkers, you become confused… ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice… two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your voice.

It's easy for all of us to read those we know we will agree with. It's comfortable. But, is that really beneficial? It may feel like learning, but as Keller says, you may just be a clone. At best you're confused. The reason I was so disturbed by the lack of diversity in my library was because I knew that none of these books would challenge my assumptions or convictions. This wall of texts became a wall against challengers. I think that is foolish.

You read that right - foolish.

Seth Godin helped to popularize the term "Tribes" to refer to our circles of influence. In my own I have found that we're all reading the same books, quoting the same people, recycling the same ideas, and patting each other on the back. But, is it really helping us? The reason it bothered me so much when I worked through my library is that the ease and familiarity with ideas wasn't helping me. I had the literary equivalent of participation ribbons.

I thought of four reasons to read people I disagree with:

1. It will force me to examine the reasons I believe what I do.

As important as it is to know what I believe, I'm convinced it's equally important to know why. This applies to far more than faith. It applies to every area of life. The reason we don't work as hard to discover why is because it is harder and takes far more work. It can also be scary to have our assumptions challenged. But, in the end, it will make you a kinder, more informed person.

That's worth it to me.

2. The willingness to be challenged (and possibly proven wrong!) will keep me humble.

Avoiding any whiff of controversy is comfortable and easy. But, without a challenge it is easy to become arrogant and abrasive. I have yet to meet anyone who thinks those qualities are virtuous. The willingness to be challenged or proven wrong is good for me.

3. It will teach me to engage in respectful and meaningful dialogue - even with those who think I am wrong!

Dr. Russell Moore likes to call this convictional kindness. That's a good way to describe it. Certainty does not have to produce anger or defensiveness. Instead you can affirm the value and dignity of the other person while still disagreeing with them. Isn't that what we all want?

4. It reminds me that even those I think are wrong still have something to teach me.

Have you ever known someone who was convinced they were right about everything? Those people are hard to be around. They will use all kinds of labels ("not a team player", "insubordinate", "stupid") to beat you over the head until you confess their intelligence. Balaam the prophet (Numbers 22) was like that. Because his donkey didn't blindly follow his directions he continued to verbally and physically assault the poor animal. It's not until God allows the donkey to speak and Balaam almost has his head cut off by an angel that he realizes he is the bullheaded jackass in the story.

So, for your next read, why not try listening to someone different; someone you don't agree with?

You Know What Happens When We Assume

This may take most people by surprise, but Preaching is one of the most difficult things you can do. It looks easy. All you have to do is stand up, talk about the Bible and then your work is over for the week! If only it were that easy. Even apart from the weight of its importance, it is terribly difficult. Part of it's difficulty is that it is deceptive. It looks easy, but it's anything but. It is both an art and a science. There are certain elements that we can learn in the classroom and others that we can't.

If I had to narrow it down to one particular temptation that I face - and that I believe many others face - it would be assumption. Those who have theological education like myself can approach a passage of Scripture and assume that we already know what it means. Familiarity with certain books or passages can lull us into a false sense of security and understanding. It's easy to identify a sermon that was build on assumption: it has a certain flatness to it. It can be propped up with all kinds of big words and appeals to ancient languages, but you can't fake depth.

When we assume that we understand a text we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to sit with the text and see the layers unfold. The longer we meditate on a passage the more we begin to see; the more it penetrates our hearts. The famous preacher G. Campbell Morgan would read a book of a Bible at least fifty times before he would ever begin his sermon preparation! Fifty! If I read a passage five times before sermon prep I'm feeling good. But, that familiarity shows up in the pulpit. It creates a depth and compassion that cannot be faked.

Even if you're not a preacher, take some time to read a whole book of the Bible in one sitting. You can start with a short one - try Jude, Philemon or Habakkuk. Read it all the way through without stopping. Then, read it again; and again; and again. Read it until you can't imagine seeing anything you haven't already seen before, then read it again. The more you read it the more the Lord will begin to show you those deeper riches.

What will surprise you - and what will transform a pastor's preaching - is that depth does not equal complicated. Depth is often simple, yet profound. Sometimes it may be complex or difficult, but it will never be convoluted or asinine. The next time you go to read your Bible try reading the same passage repeatedly. Be careful you don't fall into the trap of assumption. You know what happens when we assume...

Doing Things Badly

Anything worth doing is worth doing badly

G.K. Chesterton

It's safe to say that we all have dreams. What would you do if you knew that you could not fail? Where would you go if you knew you would never get lost? If you are like me, I bet you are dreaming big right now. I would travel the world and take Whitney every place she's ever dreamed. I would work to start a movement of young men who could preach with such passion, clarity and truth that our churches would never be the same. But, those kind of things don't happen...do they?

I have had a desire to change the way men at Southern Seminary preach. For the most part, few of my fellow students understand that homiletics is as much an art and science as Koine Greek or Biblical Hebrew. That's a shame. Until I began to take preaching seriously I preached really bad sermons. But, I came across two quotes that changed my thinking, my practice and my fear.

The first is from the late John Stott. He said that the agony of preaching is that you must forget 90% of what you know. Ouch. For seminarians, this is unthinkable. But, your congregations will thank you for it. The second is from G.K. Chesterton. He said, "anything worth doing is worth doing badly". Did you catch that? He said, "badly".

Most of us carry big dreams with us everyday. We think about them during our commutes and when we lay in bed at night. But, we talk ourselves out of them before we even try. We're convinced that every duck needs to be in its row before we can move forward on anything. If we believe that, then we'll never do anything worth doing. We'll live lives of "quiet desperation". Every idea must start somewhere.

Take a look at the first PC or the first car. They're nothing like they are today. But, they had to start somewhere. Ford started with only one car. One hundred years later, their F-150 is a best-selling pickup truck. That didn't materialize out of thin air. It's been a century in the making. The Apple II would get you laughed out of every office building and trade show today. But, now any kid with a MacBook Pro can produce films that rival even the best film companies. All it took was a dream and a willingness to start doing things badly. Excellence will come in time.

I'm stepping out. It's terrifying. Every day I face down the demons of despair who echo the same refrain: "this will fail". But, that's the beauty of it all. If it all fails, my identity is in securely in place in Jesus. So bring on failure! Let's all commit to doing those things we dream about. Let's see what God will do when we live in the security of his promises. Our endeavors may not pan out the way we dream, but in Christ we will never be failures.

So, dream big and do things badly!

Religion and Politics

Note: The following is from a recent paper I wrote for a course I recently completed called 'Christian Ethics'. I sought to explore a Christian's relationship to the state that avoids Nationalism (i.e. USA as a "Christian nation" - it's not) on the one hand and antipathy or disinterest on the other.

From Constantine to the Protestant Reformation Christianity enjoyed a privileged position in political authority. Even with the decline of Christendom around the time of the Reformation the Reformers still saw the church as having an influence upon the realm of kings and rulers. “From the outset, Protestanism was bound to cause political ripples” writes Alister McGrath. The effects of the Reformation were not limited to the realm of religious ideas. They directly affected the entire culture including politics. Many in the contemporary world have seen this as problematic and antithetical to the nature of the church . They would argue that there should be a very clear distinction between the church and the state. Gregory Boyd wrote his Myth of A Christian Nation precisely because he saw an American Christianity that too closely related itself with the Nation of the United States. In his words,

For many in America and around the world, the American flag has smothered the glory of the cross, and the ugliness of our American version of Caesar has squelched the radiant love of Christ. Because the myth that America is a Christian nation has led many to associate America with Christ, many now hear the good news of Jesus only as American news, capitalistic news, imperialistic news, exploitive news, antigay news, or Republican news. And whether justified or not, many people want nothing to do with any of it.

The illustration of the cross smothered by the flag is powerful. Chuck Colson also warns against using the tools of politics to bring about the Kingdom of Christ.

This is an important and powerful corrective to much of Evangelical political thought. David Gushee published an incitful article at the website of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship at Union University. He identifies an unarticulated view of America that some Evangelicals hold that equates the United States with the Old Testament Nation of Israel. This is the mindset that Boyd, Colson and others are arguing against. It is usually expressed in language that seeks to “take back America”. David Gushee explains that this analogy (America as Israel) is inappropriate on two levels. “It makes for bad theology…[and] it makes for bad policy.” The bad theology informs and shapes the bad policy.

However, this does not mean Christians ought not have any involvement in politics. On the contrary, we have a responsibility to work for the good of those around us – Christian or not. Despite what they have been quoted as saying above both Boyd and Colson see Christian participation in politics as a necessary stewardship that is informed and shaped by the Gospel of Christ. These men, among others, are warning against identifying the church with the state. Carl Trueman in his Republocrat states this issue succinctly: “The gospel cannot and must not be identified with partisan political posturing.” In a sermon on Matthew 5:13-14 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes a similar statement: “As Christians we are citizens of a country, and it is our business to play our part as citizens, and thereby act as salt indirectly in innumberable respects. But that is a very different thing from the Church’s doing so.” What is being envisioned in this paper is a Christian political involvement that avoids the extremes. Those extremes being the flag wrapped cross and the Christian-less public square.

Following the public embarrassment of the Scopes Trial of 1925 many fundamentalists removed themselves from the public square. Beginning in the 1940s a split began to take place among their ranks. The result was a fundamentalism that refused social action and the neo-evangelicals who saw it as their Christian responsibility to fight evil and social ills. McGrath explains this well,

In the 1920s and 1930s, fundamentalism turned its back on any attempt at social outreach. For reasons that are not entirely persuasive and rest more on imagined associations than on demonstrable convergences, many influential fundamentalists saw efforts to help the poor as betraying a commitment to liberal theology. After all, were not the proponents of the “social gospel” during the modernist controvery of the 1920s theological liberals? Until recently, fundamenalists tended to see Christian social action as limited purely to struggles for religious freedom and against abortion. For evangelicals, in contrast, the gospel clearly calls Christians to fight racism, sexism, and poverty as well.

The difference between the two was the issue of social action as a result of bad theology. As a result of their distorted view of the Kingdom the fundamentalists hung to their isolationism and removed themselves from cultural and political engagement. The evangelicals began to search for proper ways to “live out” the gospel while still proclaiming the gospel.

The reason the brief foray into american religious history is important for the purpose of this paper is that it is highly illustrative and helpful. Fundamentalists saw themselves as tasked with the purpose of redeeming Christian America and saving it from the Communists and Darwinists. When they failed (according to public consensus following the Scopes Trial) they retreated and are only heard from when one of their own does something absurd or rediculous. They embody the seclusion that is being argued against in this paper. The divergent group (Evangelicals) advocated a distinct approach. Casting off both the seclusion of their fundamentalist heritage and condemning the Christ-less social gospel they forged a path ahead that was both engaging and orthodox.

Russell Moore interacts with the well known Evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry in his book The Kingdom of Christ. In the introductory chapter he comments on Henry’s new evangelical approach: “The new evangelical theologians maintained that their agenda was far from a capitulation to the Social Gospel, but was instead the conservative antidote to it. This was because, Henry argued, evangelicalism was a theology calling for engagement, not a program for engagement calling for a theology.” The reason this paper began with a look at the Scriptures was the embodiment of this exact statement. Evangelical political involvement is first determined by the Scriptures. The theology it teaches then shapes Christians involvement. And, as it concerns Evangelicals, theology makes engagement necessary.

As referenced in the above section on Scripture and the State, Romans 13 gives us a picture that is well summarized in the immortal words of Abraham Kuyper: “There is not…an inch in the entire domain of our human life of which Christ, who is sovereign of all, does not proclaim ‘Mine’”. Christians must acknowledge the absolute rule of Christ over all areas of human life on this planet. Second, we must avoid the mistakes of our fundamentalist forefathers in secluding ourselves from any involvement. Salt is worthless if it has no saltiness and if it’s kept in isolation in pantry. Salt’s preserving power and seasoning ability is found only in contact.

The words of Francis Beckwith are very helpful in this regard.

It seems clear that because Christians in a liberal democracy have the historically unique power to enact laws that advance the common good, they have a special obligation to take their citizenship seriously and use good judgment in voting and supporting legislation and poitical candidates. This is not to say that Christians will always agree on the proper route by which the government ought to advance the common good. But there is no doubt that they have a biblical mandate to advance it.

The truth of the American situation is that Christians can accomplish great moral good through political means. It is hard to avoid the example of William Wilberforce who used his political position to bring about moral reform in England over the issue of the slave trade. Christians ought to avoid the thought that we should not attempt to legislate morality. John and Paul Feinberg are helpful in this regard when they point out that morality is legislated every day. They issue the corrective that, “If Christians refuse to work for programs and policies that reflect their morality, they may find themselves legally forced to live under the immorality of the non-believing!”

It is precisely in this regard that Christians must be gospel-centered in our approach to politics. If our work of moral improvement becomes solely about morals we have betrayed our own fundamental commitment to the gospel which enables sinful humanity to seek to live a godly (i.e. moral) life. What is essential for Christian participation in the public square is a relenteless, articulate commitment to the gospel. It was the death and resurrection of Christ that shaped the Apostles understanding of the state and the Christians relationship to it.

Blogging the Confessions: Friends

Confessions II.iii(8) - II.x(18)

This lengthy portion of book II of Augustine's Confessions covers much information. Any number of these sections of book II could be made into one longer essay. However, I have noticed an overarching theme here: friends. It is here, also, that we encounter the great pear controversy of Augustine's young life. Telling the story of a time when he and his friends went out into the night with the sole intention of causing trouble. They came across a pear tree and stole many of the pears. He writes that "I picked solely with the motive of stealing" (Chadwick, ed. 31) and "my feasting was only the wickedness which I took pleasure in enjoying" (31). He further elaborates that, were he alone, he would not have committed such a crime. Rather, his "love in that act was to be associated with the gang in whose company [he] did it" (33). He ends book II with a comment that "friendship can be a dangerous enemy, a seduction of the mind lying beyond the reach of investigation" (35).

Augustine is anything but shy to admit the depth of his own depravity and his love for sin the natural state. But, he gives us a keen insight into the nature of something further: the influence of community. The power of friendship is a profound power indeed. Those whom we allow into the more intimate places of our lives can exert great influence upon us. They can be a strong power for ill and for good. Augustine experience the pull of sinful companions. He did not pull them up, but they pulled him downward. I believe we all sense the pressure in being the "odd man out" in social circles. We must heed the confessions of Augustine and seek those companions who desire godliness and holiness. We ought to pray that we would not bring others down into folly and sin, but be brought up by others who seek his face.

May God be gracious to us all and provide godly men and women to pull us up and who are grounded firmly not to be pulled down.

Blogging the Confessions: Parents

Confessions II.iii(5) - II.iii(7)

In ancient Rome there was no such concept as public education. Either your parents possessed the financial means to fund an education or they didn't. Because of this usually only the wealthy could afford an education. This explains why such a vast majority of populations until the modern age were illiterate. Augustine's parents were not aristocrats. They were of humble means. It was because of this at age 16 Augustine did not continue his education. Apparently, Patrick (Augustine's father) was saving money to afford his education. Yet, he still spent beyond his means. It seems that many in their community highly regarded Patrick for his sacrifice. Augustine writes

"At that time everybody was full of praise for my father because he spent money on his son beyond the means of his estate, when that was necessary to finance an education entailing a long journey. Many citizens of far greater wealth did nothing of the kind for their children. But this same father did not care what character before you I was developing, or how chaste I was so long as I possessed a cultured tongue - though my culture really meant a desert uncultivated by you, God. You are the one true and good lord of you land, which is my heart" (Chadwick, ed.26).

Patrick's only concern was the praise of his neighbors and the education of his son. He had little concern for his internal character. Just the next paragraph we see that Patrick became aware of his "virility" at the local bath house and celebrated this by becoming drunk (27). Patrick had all the wrong priorities. He had no concern for the type of man Augustine was becoming, only as long as he was educated. Patrick could care less about the sexual immorality Augustine was walking into, as long as he provided Patrick with grandchildren. Augustine says that "he was drunk with the invisible wine of his perverse will directed downwards to inferior things" (27). Though he was a catechumen (a new entrant into the church - he had yet to be confirmed as a believer and welcomed into full fellowship in the church), he failed to raise Augustine as he should.

Augustine's mother seems to have expressed some concern, but it fell on deaf ears. He describes it as "womanish advice" (27) to his young, arrogant heart. Her words are still the words of a mother with a godly concern. He recognizes the admonishment of his mother was also the words of God. He writes, "they were your warnings and I did not realize it. I believed you were silent, and that it was only she who was speaking, when you were speaking to me through her" (27). The importance of godly parents cannot be understated. Augustine saw that when he penned this work. It is something that we must see today as well. It seems that part of God's plan in regenerating and sanctifying his children includes parents. It is fortunate for Augustine that he had a godly mother. Yet, it is equally sad that he had such a foolish and ignorant father. Were Patrick a wiser, more God fearing man, maybe some of Augustine's sinfulness could have been avoided. As Augustine needed in his day, so we still need godly men who raise children rightly and in the fear of the Lord. God will move their hearts in the day of his choosing. But the proverb of Solomon still holds true: "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Proverbs 22:6).

With an impending marriage and the thoughts of future children I pray regularly that I would not succumb to the patterns of men today. I pray that I raise the children God grants Whitney and I in a way that glorifies the Father and keeps them on the path of righteousness. That is a prayer that all men ought to pray. Without the intervention of God and the power of the Holy Spirit we all shall fail as Patrick failed.

Blogging the Confessions: Adolesence

Confessions II.i(1) - II.ii(4)

Puberty is a confusing and hectic time in an adolescent's life. I was no different and Augustine was no different. Growth spurts, the influx of hormones, an acute awareness of the opposite sex creates a trifecta of confusion. To make matters worse, the power of indwelling sin makes this time more than a confusing time. Usually, in the present day, most men and women begin an "exploration" of sexuality. Surveys are showing that young boys are exposed to pornography at an earlier age. I believe that it is now averaging at age 12. Additionally, more and more women are developing addictions to pornography. Sexual sin is a pandemic in our culture as it has been in every culture.

Considering his days of adolescence Augustine writes, "the bubbling impulses of puberty befogged and obscured my heart so that it could not see the difference between love's serenity and lust's darkness" (Chadwick, ed. 24). I like the imagery Augustine uses in this section. Explaining lust as a "bubbling impulse" and "fog". I picture a simmering pot that quickly becomes a rolling boil. In Matthew 5:28 Jesus teaches us that adultery begins with the lust of the heart. It is an inward, bubbling passion. Notice, that it also brings confusion. Not only does it slowly take dominion over the person, but it brings confusion with it. To this day men and women confuse lust for love. Sexual promiscuity is often termed "making love". The modern man cannot understand a romantic relationship devoid of sexual passion.

Augustine writes further that "sensual folly assumed domination over me, and I gave myself totally to it in acts allowed by shameful humanity but under your laws illicit" (26). The bubblings and confusion quickly lead to a domination. It is no surprise that sexual sin is always followed by addiction. The two go hand in hand. Where there is sexual sin there is addiction. Any man or woman who has experienced sexual assault or been inprisoned by sexual addiction or perversion can attest to the overwhelming feeling of domination. Sexual addiction and sin is a ruthless slave master keeping men and women under his destruction thumb. He tears apart families, destroys careers; destruction follows in his wake. Only by the power of God - the same power that raised Christ from the dead - can a man or woman be set free from such an addiction. Only by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit can a man or woman stand up under temptation. The gospel is the only remedy and the single hope of anyone in the chains of sexual addiction and bondage.

Let Christ redeem your sin. The grace of Christ is greater that the depth of our sin. The power of God can restore a fractured and broken sexuality. Look to the cross and the empty tomb, plead with him in prayer and endeavor to fight sin by the power of God.

On Christian Jargon

I have a pair of Levi’s that I wear everyday. I bought those Levi’s at a Kohl’s in Louisville, Kentucky over three years ago. They have seen me through job changes, childbirth, cross-country moves, weight loss (and gain). They are comfortable. To me, there are few things as comforting as an old pair of jeans. They have been stretched and worn in all the right places. Even after going through the wash, they sit just right on the hips and conform to every curve. Unless I am forced to wear a different pair, I will wear the same jeans every day. Only after they have become too dirty will I switch them out.  

That may be too much information. But, I’m not ashamed of my favorite jeans.

...And I shower everyday. So, it’s no big deal.

I had to shelve those jeans a few weeks ago. Month after month of daily wear is starting to show (and threadbare denim starts to show other things). Like those threadbare Levi's we Evangelicals have our favorite words. We drop them as often as possible. They are comfortable. They still seem to fit just right. Having lived in four different states over the last ten years I can attest that Evangelical jargon is the same in the Midwest as it is in the South.

It’s never been more popular to talk about "brokenness”. This one is relatively new to the jargon scene. For most of my young life our go-to words were “community” or “transparency”. We all became masters at dropping them into any and all conversation. If we were looking for a good group of friends we would say, “I just really need to find some community”. Or, if you found a new group and were on the fence you might offer the critique that, “they’re just not very transparent.”

And we would all nod in knowing agreement. If we gave any sympathy we might even offer to pray, “that you would really just find some transparent community.”

Mm. Yes and Amen.

Here’s my problem with comfortable words: they’re weak.

When “brokenness” first started being used it was a powerful word. It cut through the bloated “community” and turned “transparency” on its head. “Brokenness” forced us to see that our community had become anemic - more like Cheers than the twelve. But “community” had not discipled anyone in over a decade. “Brokenness” (and his brother, “Broken”) revealed that our “transparency” was only opaque, at best. Having not seen a naked soul in a generation we were exposed to our own inability to handle those fragile creatures.

I fear “brokenness" will soon find its place next to my old Levi's. It used to be valuable, powerful, fresh.

It is becoming threadbare and weak. And so young too.

“Brokenness” is becoming weak because few know what it really means. We may know exactly when and how to use it. But, I have met very few men and women who can name their brokenness. You see these words still have power but only when they are used by those who know them. These words are not tools to be used. They are not passwords into the Christian club.

They are old friends.

“Community” is powerful because it is freighted with faces and names; people who know the best and worst of me. Yet, they love us all the same. I think of specific friends and particular moments. One time Whitney and I were having a “disagreement” (let the reader understand) outside of our small group’s house. Others were showing up and walking by our car as we “discussed." My friend came out to ask if we were okay. I snapped. It was harsh and I knew it. He went back in and the whole group waited for us.

With every last ounce of determination we walked in not five minutes later. I apologized to my friend and he said, “Don’t worry about it. We had our own “disagreement” earlier today.” No one treated us any differently.

No whispers.
No knowing glances.
No, “I’ll pray for your marriage” leg taps.

They were just happy to see us.

“Transparency” moves us only when we remember all those times we bared our fragile souls and found them welcomed with gentle hands. Few know how to hold a naked soul. You can’t squeeze it, force it, command it, order it, quote Scripture to it. It must be held with all the strength and gentility of a parent with their newborn child.  

Having held many newborns, I thought I was an expert.

Then I held my son for the first time.

I obsessed over my every finger. “Don’t grip too tight” I repeated. “Hold his head up with your fingers and his back with your palm.” “Don’t let his legs hang.” “Keep him close to your chest,” I told myself, “but not too close. Don’t squish him."

Two years later I know exactly how to hold my boy. He is much stronger and much bigger than those early days. He squirms and fights. We wrestle. He climbs on furniture and jumps into my arms. He knows that I will catch him.

He knows that he can trust me.

He is bigger, stronger, and more brave today because I knew how to hold him then.

You don’t hold a newborn like a toddler.
And you don’t expect a newborn to wrestle and jump like a two-year old.

Don’t ask the naked soul to stand on its own two feet.
Push it too hard and it may never walk on its own.

“Brokenness” only has strength as we learn to trace the cracks in our soul. Those who use it without any hint of pretense are those who can free-hand their soul’s canyons. They can name what makes them broken. Using it casually robs it of its power.

The prophet Hosea describes brokenness also. In 6:1-3 envisions what a repentant Israel would say as they left their sin to return to God. "He has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him." These prophets show us that brokenness is not the natural state of the human soul. Naturally, we are far worse off. The Bible often speaks of human rebellion as being "stiff-necked" (Ex 32:9). It is a picture of our full-bodied resistance to bending towards the Lord. Repentance is the only thing strong enough to break a stiff neck.

Brokenness comes after repentance.

The broken soul is not the one that merely sins. The soul that is broken knows what it's sins are. And hates them. (Rom 7:15).

It took me a long time to learn how to trace the cracks in my soul. Still today it can be difficult to name them precisely. But the more the Spirit shows me about the state of my own soul (Ps 139:23-24) the more I experience his grace at work in my life. The more I see and name sin and its effects the more his Spirit brings life. Repentance requires us to see our sin in all its ugly. Because we can't repent of what we refuse to see.

As a preacher I have to weigh every word. James warns me. “You know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). On the day of judgement I will have to answer for every careless, thoughtless, self-righteous, evil word I have spoken (Matthew 12:36).

God the Father spoke and brought our souls to life. We speak and burn them to the ground (James 3:6).

Jesus was the Word eternally spoken by the Father. He put flesh and blood to every word the Father uttered. All that the Father is, Jesus embodies. “For I have not spoken on my own authority,” Jesus said, “but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment - what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49). We speak as Jesus instructs us - which is to speak as the Father speaks.

Psalm 19 tells us that the Father's words revive.
They make us wise.
They fill us with joy.
They enlighten and endure forever.
They are more desirable than gold,
sweeter than honey,
and grant great reward. 

Jesus spoke hard words too. He told the crowd whose bellies he had miraculously filled only moments before: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:53-54). His own disciples recognize this is a hard teaching (6:60) He tells them “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (6:63). Some leave Jesus on the spot.

They want veneers not resurrection.

Turning to the twelve he asks, “Do you want to leave also?” Peter utters these famous words: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life” (6:68).

This is what Paul has in mind when he tells us to "let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" (Eph 4:29). Speak words that bring life. Resurrection.

Paul's command against "corrupting talk" has far less to do with not saying "hell", "damn", or even (dare I type it) "shit". This verse is right in the middle of Paul's practical teaching. He tells us to tell the truth; don't let your anger lead you into sin; do honest work, not stealing from each other. Immediately after we're told: "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander but put away from you, along with all malice." While we're at it, he tells us to be kind, tender, and forgiving.

Corrupting talk puts our brothers and sisters back into the grave.
Speaking words of life means we speak as Jesus spoke, which is to say, words of resurrection.

The trouble is that we, like the crowds, want full bellies. We want veneers, not resurrection. As a professor of my wife's used to say, "People don't want to get better, they just want to feel better." Christian jargon has a way of making us feel better, but it is drained of any power to help us actually get better. This is why I struggle with "community" and "transparency" and "brokenness". I have no personal beef with those collection of letters. They're great. But when they become tools to preserve an anemic piety - ones that makes us feel better but not get better - then I have a problem.

These words can be whitewash or scalpels. A fresh coat of paint can sure make things look pretty. But a scalpel can save my life.

So, let's not use these words casually. Let's not wear them out like my threadbare Levi's - only to be shelved and replaced. Let's fill these words in with names and faces.

Let's truly be broken. Which is to say, let's eagerly anticipate resurrection.