Category Archives: Foundations

What does it mean to be a Christian?

wildernessWhat does it mean to be a Christian, at least outwardly? In evangelical circles you’ll hear it said that being a Christian is an inward thing (i.e. you can’t just “go through the motions”) but that inward reality must manifest itself outwardly somehow and the truth is I’m not sure what that looks like anymore.

Whenever I pray or read through Scripture I can’t help but feel as though I’m doing the same thing as the evangelicals I used to know and who as a whole I have such a problem with. They are, at the very least, who I do not want to be. That’s who I no longer am. Why continue with the outward expressions of my faith when all they do is make me more like them?

I guess it ultimately comes down to a question of belonging. Where do I belong? As I travel this wilderness the truth is I’m not sure. I guess it wouldn’t be the wilderness if I was. Not knowing the answer to that is uncomfortable and scary. In a word, it’s lonely. Who do I turn to for support?

What’s at the centre of all this, of the outward expressions I used to hold so dear? I’ve read a lot from others on Twitter over the past week about how they’re deconstructing their faith, questioning it and wrestling with it to see what’s really there and what that means outside of the evangelical world they once knew. I guess that’s where I am, too.

Someday I hope to have answers to my questions. Right now I have nothing but questions yet that’s OK. I trust somehow that at the end of all this is something real, that at the bottom of this hole is ground worth standing on.

That’s not much hope to offer but it’s all I have right now. If you’re walking that same road, at least you’re not alone.


The Bible and Trans People Part 2

41U4s9JARAL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_I closed off my last post with the observation that it’s not enough simply to critique the flaws in Walker’s methodology, and the conclusions he draws as a result, without offering a substantial response of my own. I don’t have comments on “trans ideology” or “transgenderism.” From talking to other other trans people I’m not even sure such things exist. What I do have is my own journey to accepting myself as a trans woman and my own exploration of Scripture and what terms like gender and sex mean in light of the biblical record. Now before you assume that as one who identifies as trans my bias is such that I’ll simply see in Scripture what I want to in order to justify who I am, let me say that I completed my Master’s degree through Liberty University and the hermeneutical tools I gained there are the ones I have used here. I have done my best to let Scripture speak for itself and I have then drawn my own conclusions in light of what I found.

The defining moment for me in my coming out journey was realizing that our gender really is a separate concept from our biological sex. I had come across an article (which for the life of me I can’t remember where I found it online), the gist of which was that when you call someone “Sir” or “Ma’am” while out in pubic you are not doing so based on their genetics. You may not even know what their genetic make-up. You are, rather, going off “secondary sex characteristics,” things like the presence or absence of facial hair or breasts, body shape, and hair length. These characteristics get their start in our genes, sure, but thanks to today’s science each of them can now be altered to a degree depending on how much you want to spend and what exactly you want to change. If our standard, so to speak, for determining gender is so maleable, is it really objective and should we continue to use it a means of defining one’s gender? The answer is no. And if that standard no longer holds, what then do we look to as a means of determining gender? The only answer left, really, is the individual inside the body in question. My challenge as a minister and student of theology was to see if this reality squared with the reality presented in Scripture.

There are any number of passages concerning gender in the Bible but the logical place to start is with the first one. As Walker does in God and the Transgender Debate, I went to Genesis. There are details in Genesis 1 that shed light on what it means to be a gendered being in light of Scripture, details that Walker overlooks. The key passage for our purposes is Genesis 1:27, which in the English Standard Version (ESV) reads, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Before digging into this verse it’s worth noting a couple of things. First, this is the first instance of “male” and “female” in Scripture. That makes this passage important. Second, look at the sentence structure here. We are created male and female “in the image of God.” The sentence connects the two ideas. (Yes this is an English translation of a Hebrew text, meaning one could argue that the connection isn’t necessarily there in the original, but this connection does carry over into other translations. The New American Standard Bible and the New International Version, for example, have almost the same wording as the ESV.) The theological question now becomes what does that connection show us about gender in this passage and what does that have to do with the question of gender and biological sex.

When we think of an image of something we may think of a photo or a snapshot of it but that’s not the sense here in the biblical text. According to The New Strong’s Expanded Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word from which we get “image” means “image in the sense of essential nature,” referring more specifically in this case to “human nature in its internal and external characteristics rather than an exact duplicate.”[1] For our purposes here it’s worth noting that this text specifically ties together image and gender: “Being created in God’s image meant being created male and female, in a loving unity of more than one person.”[2] As the observations imply, being made in the image of God does not refer to a physical likeness. It goes deeper than that and refers more specifically to the elements of humanity that we may not be able to physically see. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament summarises this when it concludes that “God’s image obviously does not consist in man’s body which was formed from earthly matter.”[3] One side of the connection under examination in Genesis 1 is thus decidedly not physical in nature.

But what of the other side of the connection? “Male” and “female” have, at least for us, very physical connotations at times. Is that the case here in Genesis 1? According to Strong’s Dictionary, the Hebrew word for “male” in Genesis 1:27 belongs to a family of words which collectively refer to remembering or being remembered.[4] The male is “the most noteworthy sex.” The Theological Wordbook takes this a step further by observing that this word is “used for the male sex when sexual distinctions are in view.”[5] The male is worth remembering, in a sexual sense, because he “stands out.” The Hebrew for “female,” in contrast, comes from a root word which means “to puncture” or “to pierce.”[6] Such a description makes sense, again, when viewed in terms of sexual distinctions.[7] When viewing a naked man and naked woman side by side, which is the case here in Genesis, the man stands out while the woman is pierced. What we have here then, absent varying cultural interpretations, is what an observer would see were they standing right in front of Adam and Eve. What we have on this side of the connection is, at first glance, thus entirely physical in nature.

Such an observation may appear to be a damning problem for trans identities but it’s actually not. So much of who we are in a gendered sense comes from the culture around us. It is from our parents and from society as a whole that we learn what is and is not OK for us as men and women. If you’ll notice in Genesis 1, all of that baggage doesn’t exist yet. Adam and Eve have no parents to learn gender roles from and no society to tell them who to be. What the Hebrew record provides is exactly what we would expect it to provide in light of this.

Now that our observations have yielded a connection between something physical and something not physical, what are we left to conclude? Are gender and biological sex one and the same in view of Genesis 1? “Male” and “female” have their basis in the image of God which, as we’ve observed, is not a physical concept. They may be represented physically in our biological sex but they are not dependent on it. There is simply too much going on in this text to conclude that Christianity does not separate gender and sex. As such, there is room in a Christian worldview for trans identities.

Having said that, I realise this will not be a popular conclusion with evangelicals and therefore a word about methodology is in order. I have done my best to not twist the meaning of the passages under examination just as I have done my best not to see evidence in these passages that isn’t there. Rather, my methodology has been similar to that used by Prof. John S. Feinberg in his No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God. In defending his analysis of various theories of creation, he says, “The tension [here] arises when we try to match the teachings of Scripture with science. Since evangelical theology must give greatest weight to Scripture, if science contradicts what Scripture clearly teaches, the conclusions of science must be rejected. Of course, the way I have stated this requires us to be sure about what Scripture really teaches, and we must also make a judgement about what the scientific data really require.”[8] What I have done here, I hope, is to show that when one compares the reality that underscores trans identities with the foundation of biblical views on gender there is no contradiction between the two. The tension can be resolved without rejecting either side.

The real danger here is that evangelicals reject one side to save the other for in doing so they reveal a hole in their worldview. The reality that underscores trans identities, that biology is not a definite indicator of gender and therefore gender and sex are not one in the same, is an objective, observable fact. Take away the moral implications that evangelicals like to attach to it and it still exists. Changing one’s secondary sex characteristics can and does occur. If the only response evangelicals have to this reality is that it shouldn’t occur then that’s a problem. Christianity at its heart is a worldview, an overarching story within which the world is supposed to fit and make sense. By saying this shouldn’t happen you indicate that your worldview is not strong enough to support it and if you’re not careful that can bring down the entire worldview. What I have tried to do here, ultimately, is to show that a Christian worldview is strong enough to support this reality and as such does have room for trans people. Assuming otherwise also leads to problems in methodology. As in Walker’s book, you’re forced to pick and choose evidence from Scripture to support a conclusion you’ve already arrived at. In doing so, you ultimately compromise a worldview in order to defend it and if as Christians we are to give Scripture the respect it deserves that is not an acceptable result.

One final word is necessary here. This post has been a response to the conclusion drawn by Andrew T. Walker in his God and the Transgender Debate but the Scriptural evidence discussed here also serves as a criticism of the Nashville Statement. If you’re not familiar with this document, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released it last year to show their position on what they view as God’s design for human sexuality. In Article VII of the Statement they say, “We deny that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.” I am not familiar with their methodology, simply because I haven’t seen a discussion of it yet, so I am uncertain as to whether they followed Walker’s flawed approach or not. I also have to say that the “homosexual” portion of their statement is beyond the scope of this post not because I believe they are correct in that regard (I don’t) but rather because if I tackled that issue as well this post would go on forever. It is a discussion for another time. That being said, regardless of their methodology their conclusion regarding trans people is too narrow for what Scripture actually shows regarding gender and sex. They may not have willingly excluded evidence that does not support their position but they have drawn a conclusion that does just that. They distort their worldview in order to defend it and thus compromise just as effectively as Walker has.

There is room for trans identities within a biblical worldview if you’re willing to ask the questions of Scripture and allow that worldview to evolve based on the answers you find. As students of theology and of Scripture we can do no less.

                [1] James Strong, The New Strong’s Expanded Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible with their Renderings in the King James Version and with Additional Definitions Adapted from W.E. Vine and Cross-references to Other Word Study Resources, in James Strong, The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Red Letter Edition (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2010), 6754.

                [2] Ibid.

                [3] R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1988), 1923.

                [4] Strong, 2145.

                [5] Harris et al., 551.

                [6] Strong, 5347.

                [7] Harris et al., 1409.

                [8] John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 580.

More Thoughts on the Bible and Gender

31118_000_005_05What are we missing in the Creation story as found in Genesis? What isn’t there that we might not realize isn’t there because we take it for granted that it is? The short answer is a lot. We fight tooth and nail over creation and evolution, for example, yet do we stop to consider whether or not what we’re advocating is supported by the text? We can make the same mistake with regards to gender in Genesis 1 and 2. Granted, the Bible contains many other passages dealing with gender in one form or another, but this is where it starts. There is a lot to go on here in the text, but as I realized the other day we’re actually missing a big piece of the puzzle.

What we like to advocate based on these passages is that God makes us as men or as women. Nothing else. Not transgender, not lesbian, not gay. Man or woman. But here’s the thing. Like I mentioned in a previous post, in Genesis 1:27 we get “male” and “female.” The Hebrew word from which we get “male” translates roughly as “remarkable,” which makes sense when you consider the male sex organs. Without being too graphic, they’re prominent. They stick up. You “remark” on them because you notice them. The Hebrew word for “female” here translates roughly as “pierced,” which when you consider the physical act of sex makes perfect sense.

That’s the only description of male and female that we get in Genesis 1. It’s a physical description, written as if one was standing there observing these two people. That being said, notice what it doesn’t include. It says nothing, for example, about what’s going on inside their heads. I also mentioned in a previous post that sex or gender (however you want to term it) is deeper than mere biology. There’s not a hint of that in these descriptions. What we get is the most basic physical description and little else.

The big piece of the puzzle I referred to earlier is something along the lines of what we’ve been discussing but which you might not even notice unless you were looking for it. Last week an article I stumbled across on Facebook pointed out that definitions of gender change from culture to culture. What constitutes a man in one culture is not necessarily the same as what constitutes a man in another culture. We learn to be men or women, at least initially, based largely on culturally established norms. These norms can and do change over time but we as children exist within them and learn from them even as we may question them. Our parents did the same before us, as did their parents before them and so on.

What I noticed when I looked in Genesis 1 is that there are no parents for Adam and Eve to learn cultural norms from. If you accept the biblical passage (and if you don’t that’s fine), Adam and Eve are the first. There is no established culture for them to learn from. It just doesn’t exist. They are, put simply, making it up as they go along. To be sure, they’re learning directly from God himself, but that doesn’t change the reality that culture as we understand it simply doesn’t exist.

Now why is that a problem? Simple. We like to read our own cultural understandings back into the text as if that is what the text was talking about and it’s not. We can’t read our own cultural concepts of what makes a man a man and a woman a woman back into Genesis 1 because culture as we understand it doesn’t exist. It’s not there.

How then can we justify using Genesis 1 to attack people who don’t fit in to our cultural norms? Maybe it’s time that we stopped twisting the text and instead tried to fit ourselves into its norms. If we don’t, we’re missing out on more than we realize.


Biology and Gender

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, and I came across one particular article last week that for the life of me I can’t remember where I found it online but which raised the point that contemporary definitions of gender and sex might be a little too rigid. The main argument that I see conservatives making regarding the possibility of people being transgender is that, biologically speaking, you’re either male or female and while you may feel like your gender doesn’t line up with that you can’t change that fundamental reality. As the article pointed out, there are two problems with this position. The first is that the very characteristics we use to determine who is male and who is female, such as the presence or absence of facial hair, show considerable variation even between two individuals who are presumably of the same gender. For example, I rocked a goatee in high school at age 17, and I can still remember talking to one guy I worked with one summer who was shocked that I wasn’t 23 like he was because I had this awesome facial hair and all he’d ever managed to grow was stubble.

The second point raised in the article is that all of these various characteristics, from facial hair to breasts to the presence of one particular type of plumbing, can all now be changed. Hormone therapy and surgery can change everything but your genes. Yes, genetics determines what you start out with, but if every characteristic that indicates gender can be changed, can we really use biology as the ultimate indicator of one’s gender? I don’t think we can, and for me that raises further questions. What then do we use as an indicator of gender? And given that conclusion, is it wrong for someone to say I’m transgender, I’m a woman in a man’s body?

As Christians, even if biology is out as a fixed point in determining gender we would still say that the Bible is pretty specific. You’re either male or female, as God created you, and that’s that. To see if the biblical picture really is that fixed, I had a look at some of the evidence. In Genesis 1 and 2 we get the story of Creation, and what I found here is enough even by itself to make we question our commitment to our position on gender. In Gen. 1:27 we’re told, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This verse would seem to end the argument, right? 

Take a closer look at the wording of this passage, though. The structure of the sentence connects “male and female” with the “image of God.” In other words, we’re created in the image of God as male and female. Now there is a lot of debate out there as to just what the “image” of God actually entails, but that’s not what I want you to see here. What I want you to see is that if we are created in the image of God, then there should be a connection between our sex/gender (however you want to word it) and God. Depending on how you define “image” you can define that connection in different ways, but notice this. God at this point in the story does not have a physical body. Jesus and the Incarnation is all the way off in the New Testament. Whatever the connection may be, it therefore can’t be solely physical. Whatever makes us male or female can’t be solely our plumbing, so to speak, because at this very point, when we’re told we’re created male or female in God’s image, God doesn’t have plumbing that we know of. What makes us who we are in terms of gender or sex (again using those words interchangeably) must therefore be something deeper than simply our physical bodies. 

I am not for a moment suggesting we throw out every passage of Scripture that speaks to us as male and female. I am suggesting that our understanding of what it is that makes us male or female or transgender or agender or whatever else needs to change. If we can’t use physical characteristics as a fixed determination of gender, and if Scripture isn’t as black and white as it would at first appear, then what we are left with to determine the gender of a particular body is the person living inside that body. If they decide on something we don’t agree with, who are we to argue with that?

It’s Not Over Yet


One of my all-time favorite TV shows is The Last Ship (I’ve quoted from it before in case you missed it). I’ve been slowly working through it as I find the seasons for sale at my local 2nd & Charles. Anyways, early on in the second season there’s an episode where the crew finally make it home to look for their families. If you’ve never seen the series, the USS Nathan James has spent the first season looking for a cure to this global pandemic and now that they’ve found it and fought off those who want it for themselves they get to go home to check on their own families. Many, obviously, don’t have families to go back to, but for Captain Chandler it’s different. His family, minus his wife who died before he could rescue them, is on the ship with him.

For Captain Chandler the questions are different than they are for his crew. Going home is only supposed to be temporary while they refuel and resupply. His wife died because he wasn’t there to save her and he blames himself, meaning he wrestles with the guilt he feels and whether or not he should go back to sea with his crew. What happens to his kids if he doesn’t come back this time? Given how badly his crew has been hurt so far, he isn’t just playing the what-if game. How can he justify that risk?

Chandler is not the only one in the episode who struggles, either. His Executive Officer, Commander Slattery, hasn’t had much word from his family since the show started. In short, he has no idea where they are and no one would really blame him if he left to look for them. He’s torn between leaving to look for them or staying with the ship.

Life can get that way for us sometimes, too, can’t it? You finally get to where you want to be in life, whether it’s in your career or with your family, and you start thinking your job is done. Or maybe you start to think that you’ll never get to where you want to be in life, so why bother, right? Maybe you’re one who follows Jesus and you get to where you want to be and so you say to him, “You do what you want. I followed you this far but I like where I’m at right now so I’m just going to stay here.”

For the characters of The Last Ship, the job isn’t done yet. Their mission, that of putting the world back together, is in many ways just getting started, and both the Captain and the XO belong with their ship. It’s a good thing, too, because greater threats await them when they do go back out.

I know how that feels because I’m there myself. My position right now is a curious mix of both. For one thing, I’ve been job hunting for so long that I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever find something that affords us greater financial freedom. On the other, we’ve spent years longing for a place of our own and now that we have it I’m really not sure what I’m supposed to do next. There are many days where I just want to take it easy. The battle’s over, right? I mean, we got what we wanted. And as one who follows Jesus, there are indeed days when I do just want to tell him that I’m good where I’m at so can we please just pause life here for a while? Let the world get on without me for a while.

Here’s the thing. We have the freedom to make that choice. We can duck out of life if we so choose. That being said, if you’re reading this you’re still breathing, and that means your life isn’t over yet. That, in turn, means you’re not done yet. There is more to do, and I don’t mean that in terms of religious obligations of some kind. I mean there’s more to see, more to learn, more times to be there for those closest to you, and more opportunities to choose intimacy with Jesus. And if you don’t know him, there’s more time to listen to his tug on your heart.

Will it cost us? Yes. Not everyone who goes back out with Captain Chandler is still around come the end of the season. The very thought of what that might mean in my own story makes me hesitate. Do I really want to go back out there again? Problem is, what we have to do in this life matters. It really does. And if not me, then who? If not you, then who? It’s your story, and it’s not over yet.

Why are we Christians doing what we do?

19214233-the-word-why-in-red-3d-letters-and-a-question-mark-to-ask-the-reason-or-origin-behind-something-and-stock-photoI’ve written before on here about how I think we as Christians are fighting the wrong battle in the current political climate. We seem to be so excited about having the opportunity to secure our place in society and protect our right to what we believe, and yet we seem equally clueless that the mere suggestion that we intend to fight these battles is turning people off to Jesus. Indeed, in the last week most of the articles on non-conservative news sites that I follow which deal with Christians have focused on our efforts in several states to get lawmakers to pass laws protecting religious freedom which would ensure our rights at the expense of the rights of those we disagree with. I commented to one individual this week that the reasoning behind our actions is simple. We’re afraid. We’ve had a dominant role in society in this country for decades, and we’re terrified of losing that. This being said, I came across something in one of my old seminary textbooks last week that makes me think it might actually be a little bit more complicated than that. What I want to do in this post is explore that rationale somewhat, and hopefully, if you’re a follower of Jesus, you’ll start to see that we are, yet again, fighting the wrong damn battle.

One of the things I learned from my church history course was that individual perspectives within the church, whether good or bad, have often been around a very long time. A thousand years ago during the Middle Ages, for example, the church had a dominant role in European society much the same as what American Christianity has aspired to over the last few decades. The church at the time was structured around the sacramental system which in turn was based on the belief that certain actions communicated God’s grace to sinners. According to Mark Noll in his book Turning Points, as the church was the agency in charge of these sacraments, its role in society was therefore indispensable.[1] Noll sums this up when he points out that, “with the widespread agreement that salvation was the most important reality, and the further agreement that salvation was communicated through and by the sacraments, it had to follow that the church, as the administrator of the sacraments, should offer a foundation for everything else in life.”[2] In short, there was no area of life, from basic education to political power and everything else in between, where the church did not have a say. (Forgive me if you’re reading this and you ascribe to that system yourself. I am not attacking that system. As the name of this place implies, it’s for people of all backgrounds and beliefs, none of which I would ever attack. I am simply commenting on how society changed because of certain beliefs about that system.)

I know of many Christians who would agree, in theory at least, that such a dominant voice for the church would be a good thing. (I live in the South, where this role for is at least somewhat more of a reality than it is in other parts of the country.) I have also met many non-Christians who are horrified at the thought of this becoming a reality. My focus here is not to get in the middle of that particular fight. Rather, like I said, I am more interested in why we as Christians feel the way we do. To that end, what really caught my eye was Noll’s exploration of the rationale for the church dominance that existed during the Middle Ages. As we’ve already said, the sacramental system was at the heart of that dominance and yet, as Noll observes, “By the time learned theologians got around to providing rationales for the various sacraments and their uses, the system was already pretty much in place.”[3] This is not say that Scripture played no role in that system, but that greater emphasis was instead placed on “the application of general theological principles and worship practices to the varied conditions of earthly existence.”[4] In short, human logic played perhaps the key role in one of the most dominant positions the church has ever enjoyed in a society throughout its history. (That dominance also led to some of the worst abuses of church history, but again that’s actually beside my point here.)

My question for contemporary Christians, then, is what is behind our efforts to protect our position in society at the cost of actually turning people off to Jesus? Is it fear? Our own logic and reasoning? I mean, what could possibly be wrong with God’s own people having the dominant voice in society, right? Church history is full of some very tragic answers to that particular question. I would respectfully assert to you that our current efforts are not God’s doing but the fruit of our own rationales. We are, yet again, fighting the wrong damn battle, and our mistake will cost those watching us dearly in eternity.

Here’s my thing. In Galatians 5:1, we’re told that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Now in case we miss that point, the Apostle Paul has used the same Greek word for freedom three times in one sentence. A more literal translation would “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free into freedom.” As followers of Christ we’re already free, in the only way that really matters. Yet we spend our days trying to impose our standards not only on each other but on the world around us. And they look at us and laugh. Something like half of all so-called traditional marriages end in divorce, yet instead of addressing that problem we put our energy into fighting to make sure that our definition of marriage is the only legal definition. And depending on which source you go to for the statistics, anywhere from one quarter to one half of all LGBTQ youth in this country have attempted or seriously considered suicide at least once. Yet instead of responding to that brokenness with love and respect, we judge and condemn.

We are surrounded by people crying out for help, to know that someone sees them and cares about them. That freedom we have in Jesus puts in the perfect place to respond to that cry with love and compassion, yet more often than not we don’t. That’s the battle we need to be fighting.

[1] Noll, Mark A. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 3rd. ed. (2012, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MA), 116.

[2] Ibid., 117.

[3] Ibid., 116.

[4] Ibid.

Life is Messy. Enjoy it!

55482167-angry-father-scolding-finger-pointing-silhouette-vector-stock-vector I’ll be the first to admit that I loathe the idea of standards for how we should live. Anytime someone says to me here’s something I ought to be doing as a good Christian man, I immediately tune them right out. Give me something I ought to be doing, and a week or so, and the odds are good I’ll have a healthy list of times when I didn’t measure up. Now the concept of measuring up is in reality totally alien to what it means to follow Jesus (we can’t ever measure up; that’s kinda the point of the Gospel), but that doesn’t keep us from trying, nor does it keep us from telling others that, as good Christian men and women, here’s what we ought to be doing in life. The saddest part is that most of us will spend a lifetime killing ourselves inside in a desperate effort to measure up to that ought, as we are all aware, on some level anyways, that we are not who we want to be.

This whole struggle hits me hardest in light of passages like Philippians 1:6, where the Apostle Paul tells his readers, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” If you’ve been around the church much you’ll probably know that we Christians take this passage to explain that we’re not perfect, but God’s working on us, and he’s not finished with us yet! (Insert overly cheerful Christian here.) What hits me with this passage is that I tend to see this whole “good work” thing as a sort of building project with specific steps. If you’ve ever put together one of those shelving units from Walmart you’ll know what I’m getting at. Do it right and at each step the project looks noticeably different than it did at the last step. If it doesn’t look different, something’s wrong. Translated to my life, this means that I assume that at this point next year I’ll be farther along in my struggles, so to speak, than I am right now. And right now I should be farther along than I was last year. If I’m not, I’ve obviously got work to do. For example, I’ll be the first to admit that I get way too defensive sometimes. There are moments when I feel like being defensive is the only thing I have left that I have control over, and so I’ll lash out instead of taking criticism. I’d like to be able to say I do this less than this time last year but that’s not really the case.

Part of what I’m trying to get at here in this post is that a relationship with Jesus is so much more than simply believing the right things and then behaving accordingly. Christianity is about more than just getting with the program, or behaviour management, or even sin management. That being said, the reality is that none of us is perfect and the struggle remains.

I guess that’s why living in a brand new single wide, on a newly cleared lot, has been so eye-opening for me. As I’ve said in other posts, we’re right in the middle of a building process ourselves, and it hasn’t gone anything like I thought it would. Get the trailer installed on the property and your set, right? Turns out that drywall has a tendency to separate a little when taken on the highway. We’ve been in here over a month now and I think (maybe) we’ve finally found the last little defect that needs repaired. And that’s not due to neglect, either. That’s just the nature of this process.

Take our yard as another example. Back in the summer, before the trailer was set up, we spent every Saturday for months out here working on the yard. We built our rock garden. We dug up roots. We leveled it out. We even had my in-laws up here with their tractor and 6-foot rake, going back and forth over the lot to make sure we didn’t miss anything. And you know what? I thought we got it all. When all was said and done, we had a very smooth, very beautiful, acre and a half of dust. It hadn’t rained in months at that point, but not long after we moved in we got all of the rain that we missed and then some. And our yard is a disaster. The runoff has cut these nice little gullies throughout which means that just pulling in the driveway feels like going off-road. And we’ve lost just enough soil to show every single root and stump that we had no idea was there but now shows plain as day. Most of what we did in the summer will probably have to be redone.

Here’s the thing. It’s not our fault. I mean sure we could have put sod down (maybe), but that wasn’t in the budget so it wasn’t an option. What we have in our yard now is the natural result of dirt on a slope mixed with too much water. It’s messy, sure, but it’s ultimately just another step in the process.

Life is messy, too, and I think we can allow ourselves to forget that sometimes. The road to being able to deal with whatever issue you struggle with isn’t always necessarily a straight one, and that’s OK. Sure sometimes we make dumb choices that screw the whole thing up for a while, but more often than not it may not be the result of anything we did or didn’t do. Things may just take longer than we thought they would, or be a hell of lot messier than we were expecting.

The reality of our yard is that it won’t always look like this. Come spring, we’ll get the tractor and 6-foot rake back out and level it out again so we can get grass seed down. That same reality is true for your life, too. If you know Jesus, then the person you are right now and the struggles you currently face won’t always be your reality. (And if you don’t know him, then getting into that relationship can give you that hope, and so much more.) I used to think that even though God has promised to be faithful in this process of living, I’d always get in the way and screw it up. What I’m learning, slowly, is that I can’t screw it up. He’s way too big for that. So go easy on yourself, and enjoy the mess.

The Start of a New Year

happy-new-year2017-55           We don’t yet have internet service at our new place (props to Comcast for continuing to assert that our address doesn’t exist), which means that by the time I get to McDonald’s to use their Wi-Fi it’ll be after the New Year, but for now it’s still 2016. This week between Christmas and New Year’s always gets me in more of an introspective mood than other times of the year. It’s the great pause, you know? The excitement and buildup to Christmas have come and gone and the excitement of the New Year hasn’t come quite yet. For me it’s the time to reflect back on the year that was and to look ahead to the new one.

This past year sure was a fun one (and I mean that in the most sarcastic sense possible). My wife and I both took attacks and accusations in ways that I never dreamed we would ever have had to deal with and from people I never would have imagined capable of dishing out such hurt. I’ve found myself in these last weeks, now that we have some distance from all of that, tempted to shut down a little inside, to back off and hide a little from all that heartache. I mean, it’s one thing to be open and vulnerable when you know that getting hurt is a possibility, but it’s quite another to try to be open and vulnerable knowing full well what the reality of hurt feels like.

I’m also self-aware enough (I hope) to know that while isolation and solitude in the short-term may be healthy, in the long-term it can be dangerous. The question is what the hell to do with what I feel. This may sound rather pro-forma coming from a Christian, but I’ve been wondering recently how Jesus dealt with all the heartache he faced. Theologians tell us that Jesus was both fully God and fully man (although no one has yet figured out how that works; I for one believe a pretty good case can be made for the truth of that statement, but that isn’t the point here). According to the Bible, Jesus dealt with the same range of emotions and heartache and temptation that you or I or anyone else who’s ever lived has dealt with. He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35), for example, and he continually sought solitude as a means to recharge from ministering to those around him (Mark 1:35). The Book of Hebrews also tells us that he can empathize with what we go through because he was tempted in every way that we are (Hebrews 4:15). Furthermore, as John 18:15-18 shows, in his hour of greatest need Jesus was abandoned by those closest to him (and who among us hasn’t felt that particular pain at one point or another?) If you want more examples, you can look at the whole story of God reaching out to us. How many times have we rejected him? Grieved him through our actions? If, as Scripture indicates, he feels what we feel, then that rejection has to hurt. And yet he offers himself again and again and again, opening himself up, being vulnerable, reaching out to us in spite of the pain.

Here’s my thing, though. Nowhere in the Gospels do we see Jesus hiding from this heartache. Never does he shrink back from it. The same can be said of God elsewhere in Scripture. And that leads me to the question I’ve been pondering the last little while. How exactly does he pull that one off? I mean, I deal with the rejection of people not understanding what I’m about with this site, for example. This is the South, after all, where unless you fit into a very particular box as a pastor, something must be seriously wrong with you. Jesus deals with a level of rejection that’s infinitely beyond that, and yet it never seems to faze him.

One possible answer to this is that being God somehow gives him a pass on the whole thing, yet that is problematic in view of the biblical evidence that he felt as we feel and was tempted as we are tempted. There must, therefore, be a different explanation.

There is one example from Scripture, in John 8 specifically, that may shed some light on this. Eight times in this chapter (verses 16, 18, 19, 26, 28, 29, 38, and 55) we get a glimpse into just how intimate Jesus’ relationship with God the Father really was. The gist of this chapter seems to be that Jesus and God the Father are one, and this comes out through a back and forth discussion of sorts between Jesus and different groups. Looking at it from a literary perspective, why not just use one example, or maybe two or three, to prove the point? Why have this lengthy discussion that brings out what is essentially the same response from Jesus seven different times? (Granted, this isn’t the sole focal point of this passage; I’m just trying to isolate one element of it.)  One thing that my seminary experience drilled into me is that the biblical writers, working under the influence of God the Holy Spirit, had the choice not just of what information to include in the biblical record but also of how to organize that information. When you come across repetition in Scripture, like the kind we have here, it’s in there for a reason.

So why, then, was it important to highlight the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father to this extent? Personally, I think it shows how he was able to live as he did. As we looked at above, he didn’t shrink back from anything, nor did he try to hide his emotions. Jesus’ relationship with God the Father was such that he knew who he was and he knew that he was loved. As a result of that foundation, nothing could shake him.

Like I said, this time of year is one that I tend to not just reflect on the previous year but also look ahead to the coming year. I know I’ve said it before in other posts, but what this revelation keeps bringing me back to is that we’re not meant to live life alone. We need that same level of intimacy with God that we see in John 8. Thanks to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the door is open for us to have it. And I’m not talking about being more faithful in reading your Bible or making sure you’re in church every Sunday morning. If you read through the Gospels, you’ll see that Jesus’ intimacy with the Father ran so much deeper than surface level stuff like that. (I’m not saying those things are bad in and of themselves; I’m just saying we can’t stop there.) As Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us, God has set eternity in our hearts. There’s a longing there, a longing for our real home and intimacy with the one we were made for, and if we’ll follow that we’ll find him. It may be in the beauty of a sunset, or the peacefulness of the stars on a clear night, or the touch of the one you love. He speaks to us all in ways befitting our own stories. All we have to do is listen. In Jeremiah 29:13, he says, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” Maybe that’s not a bad place to be at the start of a new year.

What’s He like?

the-leap-of-faithOK, so it has been a few weeks since I posted on here last, and the simple reason for that is that I’ve been kicking around a fair bit the question of what Jesus is like. There are so many ways it’s possible to answer that question, but the last thing I want to do is give an answer that’s little more than religious platitudes. If you think about it, this is perhaps the question when it comes to Jesus. “Who is He, and what’s He like?” is a question on which so much else rides.

Think about it. Every time someone says “God is _____,” how hard is it to look at your own life, or at the world around you, and respond with “Then why does _____ happen?” I don’t have to look that far to know that this isn’t that hard to do. “If God is good, then why did He allow me to get hurt the way I did?” One I’ve seen a lot from conversations on LGBT Facebook pages is some version of “If the God of the Bible is so loving, then why are His followers so unloving?” Long story short, there’s a lot riding on these questions.

Even for me, one who professes to know Jesus, to say that it’s difficult to find answers to those questions is a hell of an understatement. My wife and I spent the first 3 years of our marriage living apart, and then another year patching up the damage that did to our relationship. And the people behind that whole blow up a while back were committed Christians. I still don’t know the why behind much of that, and I’m not sure I ever will. Trusting Jesus for my salvation was easy. Trusting Him enough to be vulnerable myself, to live life and not shrink back from it, and to be myself in all that means, is something I’m not sure I’ll ever really be able to do.

So back to the question. Who is He? There have been a lot of answers put forward to that question over the years, based on a number of different interpretations (one young woman on Facebook last week said He was a “Jewish socialist”), but the main place I’m looking for my answer is the Bible. I have my reasons for that, as you might expect (and no, it’s not just because the Church says so; I make an effort to question Church positions on different things based on what I see in the Bible, and I would encourage you to do likewise). The short answer is that I believe in the Bible Jesus has made the effort to reach out to us, which means it’s a pretty good place to start. (Nature is another good place to look; you can tell a lot about the artist by what they choose to create.)

So who is He? There are many things He shows us about Himself in the Bible, but here are just a few. In Romans 8:1, He tells us that if you know Him, there’s no condemnation in how He looks at you. In 2 Peter 3:8-10, He tells us that if you don’t know Him, His one desire is that you would come to know Him. In the records of His crucifixion, He shows us just how far He went to win us back and make that relationship possible again after sin had broken it off. And in 1 John 4:10 and Romans 5:8, He tells us that His love for us has absolutely nothing to do with our own efforts. He loves us because of who He is, and because of who we are.

Does that love change if you’re white or black, or depending on the country you live in, or whether you identify as LGBTQ+ or what not? I have to say no. There is nothing in the Bible to indicate His love is limited to a select few, or in contrast, kept from a select group or two.

Does that knowledge make it easier to trust Him…? I hope so, although I do have to admit from my own life, like I said, that it can still be so hard. Lately I’ve been reading a book by N.T. Wright called Surprised by Scripture, and one of Wright’s observations is that, once we come to believe the resurrection of Jesus actually took place, it opens up a whole new world for us. I have to admit that there are days when I’m not sure I’m ready to live in that world just yet, even though I will readily admit that I believe what Jesus says about Himself in the Bible is true. As I mentioned in my last post, this trust is also a daily thing. It will come, I believe, given time.

I have to throw in a little plug here for the Misfit Discussion Forum, which should be up and running by the end of this week. This question, “Who is Jesus, and what’s He like?” will be the first one up there, and I am really interested in hearing your thoughts!

Is He real?

7387-cross_dark_sky_evil.630w.tnOne of the things I’ve noticed throughout all of the crap that my wife and I have gone through in the last few years (and there’s been a lot of it) is that how I view God tends to determine how I handle the crap. If I see Him as loving and close to me, for example, it makes the crap easier to deal with (although it doesn’t make it go away, that’s for sure), whereas if, for whatever reason, He seems distant or I think He’s pissed at me for one thing or another, it makes the crap that much harder to deal with.

The question is not a trivial one, either. If you’re the praying sort, how do you know who’s on the other end of your prayers? Better yet, how do you know anybody is on the other end at all? And if you’re not the type to pray, why start if there really is nobody on the other end to hear you? When I was asked a few years back to teach a Sunday School class at the church we were at at the time, I was told that when it came to prayer I was to teach these kids how to pray. To be honest, that request pissed me off. There are uses for prayer that is more scripted (praying through the Psalms can provide a voice to things we don’t know how to express, for example), but at its heart prayer is just a conversation with God, and if you can talk and listen then you can do that. What is of greater importance is how we view the person we’re talking to. Is He even there? Does He care? Is He even listening? (My apologies if this seems like covering old ground. This one’s kind of important.)

Whether or not there’s someone on the other end when we pray is a matter for faith more than anything else. There are reasons to believe, sure, but unless you find them convincing they may not be enough by themselves. So, is He real? The Bible itself can help us find an answer to that one. In the letter of 1 John, the Apostle John is writing to a group of Christians who’ve been caught up in believing that salvation comes not through trusting Christ but rather through “secret knowledge”. It’s the way he begins his letter that’s important for our purpose here. He says in 1 John 1:1-4, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Take a close look at these verses and notice how many times the senses come into play. Twice the writer refers to what they have heard, four times to what they have seen, and once to what they were able to touch. Let that sink in for a minute. (When biblical writers emphasise something that often in such a short space, it functions as a sort of divine highlighter. This is something you don’t want to miss.)

What John is up to here is laying the foundation for when he later responds directly to those who are trying to mess around with the Christians he’s writing to. Basically he’s saying, “This is why I can talk to you about this,” or better, “Here’s my authority.” And where does that authority come from? It comes from the fact that John was there, and the fact that he constantly talks about “we” means he wasn’t the only one. These people were there when Jesus performed His miracles, and they were there to hear His teaching. In short, they saw that He was real, and for that reason John could call out those tried to change the minds of the Christians he wrote to.

So is He real? Those who heard Him speak and saw what He did when He walked this earth certainly thought so. I realise this doesn’t answer the second question, that of what He’s like, but this is one question that is worth answering well. An off the cuff answer just won’t do, so we’ll take that issue up in the next post.