About pcfaust

Paul is the Pastor of Young Adults and Ministry at Grace Church of Arvada in Arvada, Colorado. He completed his Master of Arts in English at Liberty in May of 2012, and he's recently been contemplating the way that God continually reaches out to "outsiders" - people that aren't usually considered His favorites. He also likes to make up nonsense words with his three year old son, and he hasn't yet figured out how he ended up married to such an incredibly beautiful woman.

Truth and Comfort in the Wake of Tragedy – repost

I originally wrote this post in the wake of the Jessica Ridgeway tragedy in October of 2012. But yesterday, I received news that the daughter of the man I mention in paragraph six had not woken up. She’s with her dad now. So I’m re-posting this in hopes that it might bring some sort of comfort to those who are mourning the loss of our dear, sweet Kaylee. Please remember as you read that the original context of this post was Jessica Ridgeway’s funeral. When I mention justice and evil, I am in no way insinuating that Kaylee’s death is in any way a result of her own sin or that of her family. Those portions deal specifically with tragedy that can be traced directly to the actions of individuals, as was the case with Jessica.

*****

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will get neither comfort nor truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair. – C.S. Lewis

Five times I’ve been shocked out of my routine by a phone call telling me that someone I loved had died, and strangely, all five times those calls have come on a Saturday.

The first call came during the summer between my first and second years of teaching. A student who had been in my class – my first class – had fallen out of the back of a truck and died instantly.

He’d approached me halfway through the season the previous year to ask if he could join my football team, but it was too late for that season. He’d have been a great addition to our team, but we told him he’d have to wait until the next year.

He didn’t make it to the next year.

The second call came while my wife and I were out on a photo shoot – she was taking senior pictures for one of my students. The father of a beloved family in our community had not woken up that morning. He left behind a wife and four children who still needed him. They still need him now.

The third call woke me up early to tell me there had been a fatal car accident only a few blocks from my house. We found out later that day that one of the people killed was a teenage girl who had been in my Bible class for several months during her sophomore year of high school. When she arrived at our school, she didn’t own a Bible, so my wife and I bought her one to use in my class. In the days following her death, her mom told me how she’d been baptized in the ocean in the Philippines, the home of her ancestors, and I gave her parents a letter she had written to herself about what following Jesus really meant to her. I had planned on giving the letter back to her later that year.

The fourth call interrupted a drive home from a youth retreat to tell me that another of our students, a precious, joyful, intelligent little girl who had been a light every day she walked through the doors of our school had finally lost her battle to the brain tumor that had been ravaging her body for years. She never made it to her sixteenth birthday, and though it was “expected,” her death was no less tragic for not having been a surprise.

And the fifth was the worst of all for me personally. The fifth was the closest to home, because that call woke me up to tell me that a young man who had been in my class for four years, who I had seen on weekends at youth group, who had been to my house to record a video project for my class, who had shared with me some of his deepest pain and the dreams closest to his heart, and who had once helped me push a car out of the snow for a person neither of us had ever met, was dead.

He was strong. So strong, in fact, that I called him a rhinoceros when he walked by my classroom. He was young and healthy, and he loved God. But one morning his heart just quit working.

In April of my Junior year of high school, two students at Columbine high school took the lives of thirteen of their classmates and teachers. When baseball practice started that day we didn’t know the extent of the massacre, but we brought a radio to the field with us and listened to the news as we took batting practice. But when we started hearing about bodies being carried out of the school, we ended practice early to go home to our frightened and weeping parents.

I remember seeing an interview of a student who was wounded in the shooting. He was a baseball player – a pitcher, just like me. We played Columbine the next summer, and even though it was months after the massacre, seeing him walk on to the field that day was surreal. It’s not easy to play a baseball game against a kid who got shot in his school cafeteria.

About two and a half years later, my college classes were cancelled when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

A few months ago a highly-anticipated movie premier turned horrific when it was interrupted by gunfire.

And over the past two weeks our community has ridden a roller-coaster of shock, fear, hope, and horror as the details of the abduction and murder of a ten-year-old girl have come to light.

In each of these situations, in addition to dealing with my own grief, I’ve been the recipient of countless questions about God’s goodness and power, and particularly about how that goodness and power can still be asserted in the midst of such unthinkable evil. I’ve been a friend, teacher, counselor, coach, and pastor when these events have taken place, and I’ve learned over and over again that much of the real work of healing takes place in the aftermath, when the wounds of the past are re-opened by the death of someone else’s dad, or son, or brother. And in those conversations, the ones that take place a year, two years, or five years down the road, I get to see the real impact of the answers we give on days like today, when the questions are fresh and the wounds open for the first time.

A number of responses to such tragedies keep popping up in my conversations with people far removed from their own tragedies and still trying to heal. They’re answers that have been given by well-meaning, wise people who have a deep concern for the hurting. They’re given in an attempt to provide some sort of comfort and understanding in the midst of confusion and pain.

The problem is that they’re just not true.

At least not in the ways they’re received by a person who is overwhelmed by pain and searching for answers.

I don’t pretend to have answers that will bring healing to the hearts of those who have been directly affected by tragedies like the ones I listed above. No amount of truth will ever “fix” a tragedy, nor should we try to make it “fix” a person who is hurting. Often, our biggest mistakes in situations like these come from trying to explain away someone’s pain, or from trying to convince them that they should be “ok” by now. Let’s be clear that grief doesn’t work on a predictable timeline, and the acceptance of truth about a situation does not remove the emotional fallout of encountering evil.

But if we’re going to give answers (and we are, at some point, going to try to give some kind of answer), let’s give answers that will help rather than hurt. And let’s remember Jesus’ claim that the truth sets us free.

If our responses to tragedy result in more bondage and guilt than freedom, then we need to honestly evaluate whether or not those responses are true, both propositionally and systematically.

Here are a few examples of responses that, when given without explanation or clarification, I’ve seen do a great deal of damage in the lives and hearts of the hurting:

1. “God has a plan.”

Is God in control? Absolutely. Does He have a plan? Undoubtedly. But in the midst of severe emotional pain, the distinction between God’s plan and his desire becomes quite difficult to keep straight. Telling a hurting person that God has a plan is roughly equivalent to telling the parents of a stillborn child that God wanted their baby to die because He didn’t have any better ideas about how the day might go. We present God as the kind of dad that throws a four-year-old boy into the ring at a UFC fight to try to make a man out of him and then yells at him for crying about his broken leg.

What we’re probably trying to say when we give this response is that someday, somewhere, God is going to sort everything out, but in the moment it tends to feel like telling people that God is an abusive monster who they should trust just because He says He loves them. There’s really no other way to hear this one than “God wanted your dad to die, and if you can’t accept that, then you really don’t have much faith.”

2. “God will bring good out of this.”

Often, this response quotes or nearly quotes Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The principle of the verse is, of course, true, and we must always assert God’s omnibenevolence – all things He does are good and He is able to bring good out of even the most horrendous evil. But as we saw above, the application and interpretation of truth must be tempered by wisdom. And in the wake of tragedy, telling people that God brings beauty from ashes sounds more like excusing a cosmic villain than explaining the actions of a benevolent God.

Here’s a rough translation of what this response sounds like to a hurting person – “I know you’re hurt by the fact that your baby only lived for three months, but now you appreciate your other kids more, so it’s ok.”

Please forgive my bluntness – I know that we’d never say such things, especially to parents who have just lost an infant, but when we tell them that “God is going to bring good out of this” in the midst of their pain, how can we expect them to hear anything else?

And where in the world did we get the idea that if good comes from tragedy, it justifies the tragedy?

I can think of a few people in history who have acted out a belief that tragedy was worthwhile if the end result was good. The most famous one is Hitler, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting his name on the same list with God’s and pretending that, even though their methods are the same, God is good and Hitler is evil.

Let’s keep Romans 8:28 within its context of an ultimate, cosmic restoration of all things through the redemption of both human beings and the creation itself and not try to make evil look like good just because God doesn’t give up hope when bad things happen.

3. “It was their time to go.”

This oft-repeated response to death has a measure of truth to it, because God certainly knows the exact time and location of every person’s death, but in the moment it can come across as more than a little trite. The primary weakness of this response in tragic situations is that it tends to completely ignore the glaringly obvious element of human choice by reducing the complex web of the divine-human relationship to “God’s timing.” And in the case of suicide, for example, such a response comes quite close to a deterministic justification of evil by implying that, had the individual in question not taken his own life, he would certainly have died that same day and time by some other method. Thus, the means of death becomes meaningless, and we become pawns in God’s cosmic game of chess.

So how do we respond when evil interrupts our lives? What can we say to people who have come face to face with the unthinkable and are unable to reconcile an unstoppable flood of despair with the claim that God’s goodness has invaded our world and forever transformed the human experience for all of us?

The Bible teaches us a few truths that, though not so “tidy” as those above, may in the long run prove much more helpful and effectual for those who must certainly face tragedy again.

1. God hates death.

It has for some time been my conviction that the primary reason for Jesus’ tears in John 11:35 was His deep pain over the presence of death on Earth. We say that death is simply a part of life, but it was never meant to be. In the perfect world that God created in the beginning of all things, there was no death, no pain, no suffering. Its presence among us now is a constant reminder that we are not home, that things are not as they were meant to be, that the very foundation of our existence is broken and torn.

In Jesus’ tears at Lazarus’ tomb we see God Himself mourning the pervasive consequences of the sin that He warned Adam and Eve to avoid. And though God is unceasingly joyful, He is also unceasingly aware that the great pain of the human condition and the immeasurable devastation of sin in the lives of every man, woman, and child who has ever been born never had to be. Had we trusted Him enough to choose His way in the beginning, no one would ever have died, and our intimacy with Him would have remained unbroken from the very first day of our existence.

From Abel forward, every death that has ever taken place has been a reminder that the very best plan of God existed in reality only until Adam and Eve chose to listen to the voice of the serpent instead of the voice of God.

Every death is a reminder that, by default, we are at war with the God who has loved us enough to shed His own blood on our behalf.

We do not mourn like those who have no hope; nevertheless, we do mourn. We must, for our pain need never have been possible.

2. God is making all things new, but He’s not finished yet.

We simply do not have to act like we’re already at the end of the story. God has won, but the loving law of God does not yet fully reign in our cities and towns. The blood of Jesus has torn the veil of separation between God and man and in so doing has forever conquered the power of sin and death, but God’s choice to be a benevolent King rather than a tyrant guarantees that so long as men choose to rebel against Him and He chooses to delay His return to earth, we will continue to experience the devastating consequences of sin.

The refrain of the Psalmists – “How long, O Lord” – can and should be our cry as well when we experience the evil of a broken world. And the presence (in various forms) of such a refrain throughout not only the Psalms but the Scriptures as a whole should tell us that God not only understands but commends the kind of honesty that says, “God, I know that you’re going to fix all this, but I can’t help but wish the fixing process was over, because the pain I’m feeling right now seems like it’s going to paralyze me forever.” God asks us for faith, of course, but He also asks us for honesty. In the midst of our own tragedies, let us join with the Psalmists in crying out to God, full of honest pain and full of faith that the long road He has chosen is the best road possible, even if we can’t see around the next bend.

3. God brings beauty from ashes, but the ashes are still ashes.

I think the book of Lamentations may be the most comforting book in the Bible, but most of it is spent in meditation on suffering, and a basic reading could easily leave us with little hope for the future. But right in the center, in the section that the structure of the book points us to as the central and most important passage, we read these words:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,

For his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;

Great is your faithfulness.

-Lamentations 3:22-23

Lamentations never ignores the ugliness of the ashes that Jeremiah sits in while he writes the book. But it doesn’t let him (or us as we journey through the book with him) stay in those ashes.

The point is this: We shouldn’t mourn forever, but we don’t have to lie about the devastation we’re facing. And sometimes the best prayer we can pray is, “God, I hate this.”

Jesus wept. And then He woke Lazarus up and told him to get out of his grave. Let’s join him in both.

4. God is able to simultaneously seek both justice and forgiveness.

Understanding the theological paradox of God’s simultaneous desire for both justice and forgiveness will help us avoid the kind of false dichotomy that says we can either forgive and love our enemies, as Jesus commanded us to do, or we can hope for the perpetrators of great cruelty to be caught and punished.

The truth is that God wants justice more than any of us, because He alone understands the full horror of sin. He alone has felt and experienced every detail of the suffering of countless victims of countless tragedies stretching back to the beginning of human history.

And He wants mercy more than any of us, because He alone understands the full horror of sin. He alone knows the crushing weight of guilt experienced by those who bring horror into the lives of others.

We need not try to choose between justice and forgiveness.

Tragedy, and our ability to deal with it honestly, proves the necessity of hell, and the necessity of the horror of the cross for its escape, for only in the cross do we fully see God’s simultaneous passion for both justice and mercy. Only in the cross is there any hope of forgiveness for the grievous evil that invades our lives, and for the grievous evil that we ourselves commit. And only in the cross do we see a God that does not keep Himself distant from our pain, but chooses instead to join us in our deepest tragedy and our deepest mourning. Not only does He join us there, but through the cross He conquers that pain and that mourning so that someday we will never have to face death again.

5. God will never lie to us, either by word or by experience.

God’s primary method of teaching us truth is His Word, but He has designed our universe to teach us truth as well, and when appropriately interpreted, the events of our lives, and the consequences of those events, can be trusted to tell us what God is really like.

He does not deceive us, and there are many things that we desperately need to know.

We need to know that evil is real, and powerfully destructive. For God to soften the effects of our sins or the sins of others would be to lie to us about the true ugliness of rebellion against His laws.

We need to know that the consequences of some sins are permanent and irrevocable. Forgiveness does not erase the consequences of sin here on earth. It never has, and for God to make it otherwise would be to deceive us.

We need to know what a world without His moral guidance actually looks like. Despite the pain we must experience in learning what happens when we live our lives in rebellion against God’s intended way of living as expressed in His moral laws, and despite the pain that He experiences when He sees us rebelling against those laws, God chooses not to stop us from living as fools. He chooses to let us see what happens when we reject the moral truths He has so graciously revealed to us.

And finally, we need to know that the consequences of our personal sins are never only personal – they will always impact those we love, those we have only just met, and those we don’t even know. We cannot escape the communities in which we live our lives, and for good or ill, our actions affect those communities. As we are confronted by the suffering and horror one person can cause by evil deeds, let us remember also the great good that one person can do by righteous deeds.

6. There is no good that can make a tragedy “worth it.”

We know that God can redeem even the worst of circumstances. We know that He brings good out of evil. But no amount of good can justify tragedy – and God never attempts to justify tragedy.

After 9/11, our nation came together in unity in a way that I had never seen. After Columbine, students cared for one another in ways they never had, and they joined together to pray for each other. During the search for Jessica Ridgeway over the past couple of weeks, countless parents (including me) have renewed their commitment to love their children well, and an entire community has left aside its many political, religious, and socio-economic differences to join together to look for a lost little girl.

These are all good things. They’re things we should be thankful for, and I believe with all my heart that they come from God.

But they don’t justify the evil.

They don’t erase the terrible things that have taken place among us.

God does not send tragedy so that we will grow from it. He does not beat us up so that we’ll get stronger.

Good comes out of evil because God doesn’t get discouraged and give up when sin seems to be winning. And good comes out of evil because we carry His image, and deep down, we know that evil can never win.

The question is, will we allow the tragedy to continue to triumph in our lives by allowing it to paralyze us, or will we take our places as God’s image bearers and, like Him, work to bring beauty from ashes?

Will we move forward in a way that honors the lives of those we’ve lost, or will we spend our days in a disheartened stupor and effectually make ourselves one more casualty?

“Why?” will never yield a satisfactory answer, because even the best answer will never bring back what’s been lost. But if we’re honest, and if we’re courageous enough to move forward into hope, we’ll honor both those we’ve lost and the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Last night I had the privilege of attending Jessica Ridgeway’s funeral. Among the many things I experienced was a profound sense of hope, not particularly because of anything that was said, though the things that were said were stunningly powerful and captivatingly true. I felt hopeful there because, though the evil we remembered last night was gruesome, it was hidden in shame and darkness, but the beauty of the Body of Christ, the truth of God’s Word, and His great love for His children were proclaimed in the light among a crowd of thousands and were broadcast to countless more.

You see, light never hides.

Truth never flees in fear of evil.

Good never shies away from a confrontation with evil.

When good men and women stand together in unity under the authority of a good and strong God who refuses to lie to us, who refuses to let the story end before the good guys have triumphed, who refuses to take shortcuts to avoid the pain and struggle of justice, evil slinks away in inglorious defeat.

So God, let us not lie about the pain and evil we experience. Give us the courage to stare long and hard at the bleeding wounds we carry. And give us the hope not only to stand in your truth, but to move forward as you encourage us, challenge us, and sometimes even carry us, knowing that the wounds are real, but knowing also that in the light of your profound goodness and grace, those wounds shrink away to shadows and dust.

May we stand with God in triumph, not because we’ve excused away the pain of our tragedies, but because we’ve taken them to Him and let His strong and gentle hands heal us. And because the future is worth it.

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It’s Gonna Find You

A few months ago, my friend Aaron Espe posted a video of a song from his new project, Bombs Over Nowhere. It’s been rattling around in my head ever since. This one doesn’t need much comment, but I’d humbly suggest you watch it at least twice. The first time, just soak it in. The second time, pay attention to the details of the story.

I’m guessing I won’t need to suggest that you watch it again tomorrow.

Enjoy.

How Teaching at a Christian School Helped Me Understand the Book of Leviticus, part three

There’s another problem, though. In order to get us all “in line” and following all of His rules exactly, God would have had to speak almost exclusively about rules all the time, but if He did this, we would be in danger of thinking that following the rules was all it took to please Him. And that’s a really dangerous place to be.

scc_heavenintherealworldI think that teaching at a Christian school really helped me understand the book of Leviticus, because I was in a position of having to represent the rule-makers to the rule-followers. That is not an easy position to be in. For example, we had a rule that said students were not allowed to wear band shirts to school, and the students thought it was stupid. I don’t know how many times I heard, “I’m seriously getting in trouble for wearing this Stephen Curtis Chapman shirt?! Stephen Curtis Chapman is seriously like the most Christian musician there is!”

Ok… I take that back. I never heard that… But I could have. And I did hear similar things…

“It’s not like I’m wearing a Marilyn Manson shirt.”

“What do my clothes have to do with my Christianity?”

“Are you saying that my shirt is a sin?”

Let’s think about goals and difficulties for a minute, remembering that God faced the same kind of thing, and we will continue to face the same kind of thing every time we pair religion with rules.

The point of the rule was to keep kids from wearing shirts that were genuinely offensive. The administration also wanted to set a standard of modesty, so they established a somewhat arbitrary length for girls’ skirts.

One of the reasons that rules have to be specific is that, had we said that students needed to avoid offensive and immodest clothing, there is no possible way discipline could have been enforced. Students would have had to change clothes between every class, because even the teachers could not agree on what counted as modest or immodest.

So God wants people to release their slaves based on the fact that they have realized that slaves are human beings. This is much better than releasing them because God said they had to or He would kill them. But there remains the problem of treatment of slaves, and we have to take into account that the master isn’t the only one that matters – the slave matters to God too. If God made no rules protecting slaves from severe mistreatment, surely slaves would be prone to think that they didn’t matter to God.

So He decides to take a different road, protecting the slaves while giving the masters a chance to realize that slaves are people too. He makes a law requiring masters to treat their slaves well.

But unless those laws are specific, they are meaningless. What is to stop a slave master from saying that as long as the slave is alive he hasn’t been mistreated? How do you enforce a law that says you’re supposed to “be kind”?

The other side of the problem at our Christian school, and this was really the bigger problem, was that some students started thinking that as long as they didn’t wear band shirts and their skirts were the right length, then they were on good terms with God. This was the problem the Pharisees had. They didn’t spit on any rocks on Saturday, in fact they even counted their steps to make sure they didn’t walk too far, but they missed the whole point of the day. The day was a day of rest and worship, but they were so busy worrying about whether or not they were desecrating it with their spit and their steps that they didn’t have time to think about what really matters to God.

The rules do matter, because God needs to tell us what a person who follows Him looks like.

And they matter because sometimes people need to be restrained. It is important to, like God, allow for the development of character over time so that obedience is not only outward. But that doesn’t mean that we keep letting people murder each other in hopes that one day they will have a change of heart and decide to stop.

They also matter because they tell us about our God.

And when I look at the laws through this lens, I see something pretty incredible.

God always raises the standard.

At any period of history, you can look at external records and find that the Bible is ahead of its time in terms of the ethical norms of society. In the Old Testament world, a man could divorce or kill his wife whenever he wanted. God required him to give her a certificate stating why he was sending her away. He raised the standard and, in so doing, challenged men to look past what they saw around them and lift themselves above the status quo.

When certificates of divorce became the status quo and men began using them as an excuse to get out of their marriages, Jesus reminded them that it was only because of the hardness of their hearts that the Old Testament allowed them to divorce with conditions. Their hearts had gotten a bit softer and a bit closer to God’s intention, but they needed softening still. They needed to remember Genesis 1:27 and the story of the creation of Eve.

In all of this, God never compromises His absolute moral standard. He never stops telling us that we are to be perfect as He is perfect. He never stops telling us that His own character is the standard. And He never stops telling us what the next step is in getting to where He wants us to be.

A good teacher teaches both the ultimate goal and the next step in the process.

God is a good teacher.

And He never takes shortcuts in getting us aligned with His ultimate standard.

Because the standard is not just outward obedience.

The standard is obedience based upon love of God, honor toward one another, and understanding of our own place within the world He has created.

He will never compromise, and He is still softening our hearts.

Because we’re not home yet…

How Teaching at a Christian School Helped Me Understand the Book of Leviticus, part two

Cultural and historical context are also important when we start thinking about how the Old Testament laws were to be enforced, and about what God ultimately wanted to happen as a result of giving them.

A few years ago, I was volunteering with Justice for All at the campus of the University of Northern Colorado, and at the end of my conversation with one of the students that had seen the display, he asked me about the group’s goals: “What do you guys ultimately want out of this?”

I told him that our goal was for abortion to be outlawed, but I realized later that I had lied, at least about what I wanted personally. I don’t really care all that much about the laws. What I care about are the babies. And no matter what happens with the laws, my real goal is that abortion clinics have to close because of lack of demand. In the end, the result would be the same – abortion would end. But the way we get there would be totally different, and the way we get there is incredibly important.

Modern missionaries have faced a unique dilemma in ministering to polygamous tribes. Let’s say missionary Harry goes to Papua New Guinea and, through chronological Bible storytelling, a certain tribe begins to accept the gospel and live as believers. As they begin to pursue Biblical ethics for their tribe, they realize that God’s intention for polygamy_evilmarriage is that each man have only one wife, and vice versa. What does Harry do with the man who already has 6 wives? In order to follow the letter of the command, he must either divorce or kill 5 of his wives, but is that really what we want? The solution to this is, of course, complex and must be dealt with uniquely in each situation, but I use it to illustrate the fact that the world in which these laws were given was not a blank slate. It was a very chaotic, morally confused world in which men married, divorced, and killed their wives, children, and slaves based on whim and mood, human sacrifice was commonplace, and feuds between families and between nations continued until one side or the other was completely obliterated from the face of the earth. To get people to start treating each other with respect in a world like this is quite a task.

But God’s goal is not just obedience. His goal is obedience that results from a changed heart, which is one of the primary messages of the sermon on the Mount. It’s important to note that Jesus never changed God’s rules, in fact He followed the Old Testament closely. His rebellion (I’ve heard it called this, but I think teaching people that Jesus was a rebel probably does more harm than good) was against the kind of laws that teach people that as long as they behave the right way, their hearts do not matter. What Jesus was attacking was a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Law was all about. This is why Jesus spit in the dirt to heal a man on the Sabbath. For those who don’t know, the Pharissees had a law that said it was legal to spit on a rock, but not on the dirt, on the Sabbath. The only possible justification I can think of for this is that, should there happen to be a seed in the ground where I spit and it grows as a result of the moisture I have placed upon it, then I have farmed on Saturday and deserve to be cast into the Lake of Fire. By spitting on this law (sorry…), Jesus points out the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of such a situation. He has just healed a blind man, but the really important blind_Healingthing is where He spit… This is sort of like telling a rape convict who wants to get saved that he’s going to have to get rid of his earrings and pull his pants up. It may be that at some point he does both of those things, maybe even because he loves Jesus, but the timing is a little off.

And timing is actually pretty important. If you watch the progression of God’s revelation throughout history, it’s not all that difficult to see that He is continually calling people to a higher standard, taking the long road of character change in order to reveal what He really wanted from the beginning. This, I think, is one of the most incredible and beautiful things about God. He never compromises on the absolute standards, but He also meets us where we are at in order to bring us, by our own choice and the development of our own character, to where He wants us.

Let’s take the example of slavery. From the beginning, it was very clear that God created all men (and women) equal. Genesis 1:27 says that man and woman were both created in the image of God, and the early laws make no distinction between one man and another by way of race, ability, age, etc. God’s desire is that all human beings, as His image-bearers, be seen and treated as equally valuable. But by the time we get to Leviticus and Deuteronomy, sin is firmly in place, human nature is corrupted, and slavery is commonplace. What is God to do now? How does He rid the world of slavery?

Let me pause and remind you that God’s goal is not to rid the world of slavery. His goal is to fill the earth with men and women who will not tolerate slavery because they have learned to honor the intrinsic and inalienable value of every human life.

God could have gotten rid of slavery by sending a lightning bolt to kill everyone who owned slaves, or even by making slave-owning punishable by death. But what would have been the result? He would have achieved half His goal. Granted, people would not own slaves, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not nearly as good as people not wanting to own slaves because they respect each other. He would also have had to keep doing this, every generation, until the end of time, because people’s actual morality would never change. Effectiveness in the short term does not equal effectiveness in the long term. And God seems an awfully patient fellow when it comes to things that are really important, like the morality of the human race.

How Teaching at a Christian School Helped Me Understand the Book of Leviticus, part one

I think anyone who has ever done any serious thinking about the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament, or even read the Old Testament closely, has wondered what we do with all the crazy laws we find in the Old Testament. Which ones should we still follow? Am I going to hell if I eat pork or shellfish? What about tattoos? Should we really stone kids to death for disobeying their parents? If a man dies without having children, does his brother really have to marry his wife and have a kid with her and then give that kid his dead brother’s money?

In this, like most things that have to do with the Bible, I think it’s very important that we understand before we try to apply. Most of us jump right to wondering which of these laws we’re still supposed to follow, which is not a bad question, but it skips a few steps. I think a good place to start with this particular issue is trying to figure out the point of these laws within their original historical, cultural, and political contexts.

One of the simplest and most fundamental tenets of the study of communication is that all communication involves at least three things – a sender/speaker, a receiver/listener, and a message. If we discount any one of these three, there’s no way we’re really going to understand what is being communicated, and if we want to know what God meant when He said these things, we have to start with asking what it would have meant to the original audience. Here are a few examples of how this can drastically affect the meaning of a message:

In 2011, if I turn to the young man next to me in class and ask him if he is gay, I am asking a question about sexuality. In 1908, the same question directed to the same young man would have been a question about mood.

If I have a guest staying at my house, and I ask the question, “are you hungry?” I am asking whether or not he wants me to make him a sandwich. If I am a football coach giving an inspirational speech before a playoff game and I ask the same question, I am asking about my players’ level of desire to win the game.

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And finally, to borrow a bit from Dumb and Dumber, the statement “I’ve got worms” does not always refer to intestinal parasites – sometimes it means you’re actually in possession of a certain species of slithering animalia.

So if we want to know what a person meant by a message, we have to at least ask what that message would have meant to the original audience.

This is particularly pertinent to Old Testament laws like the ones about tattoos and boiling a baby goat in it’s mother’s milk, and even some New Testament laws like the ones that say women shouldn’t have short hair or ever talk in church. For us, a tattoo of a swastika carries a very specific, strong meaning, but before Hitler, it would not have carried that same meaning. Similarly, showing your middle finger to someone is offensive in the Thumbs-UpUnited States, but in other countries this is not so. And to insert a bit of travel advice – it is always wise to find out a country’s equivalent to our middle finger before you go there, just in case it’s something like a thumbs up or the “ok” sign. This could be especially problematic if you don’t speak the language and you’re trying to tell the guy at Starbucks that he got your order right…

But back to the laws…

Sometimes we get confused when there are cultural issues we don’t know. Tattooing in the Old Testament was used to identify a person with a pagan god. In fact, priests and priestesses would often tattoo an image of the god or goddess they served on their bodies as a sign of devotion to that god, and for the people of ancient Israel, tattooing was seen as a sign of pagan religious devotion, so saying you were getting a “Jewish tattoo” would be kind of like getting a giant picture of Satan inked on your face and claiming it’s because you love God so much.

Sometimes, we have to dig a little deeper in order to really understand what God is asking us for. More on this tomorrow…

On Crucifying my Flesh, and Loving my Body

????????????????????????????????????????I’m a skinny white dude.

I’m tall – taller than most of the people I meet. But I don’t play basketball. At least not well. Basketball requires your hands and feet to do the things your brain tells them to do, and quickly. Mine usually don’t.

Because I’ve been an athlete most of my life, I’ve spent a lot of time with guys that have way bigger muscles than I do, and when I was in high school I set a goal to be able to bench press my body weight, because that’s the goal my weight training coach told all the skinny guys to start with. It was a good starter goal. You know, a goal for before we started getting strong.

I’ve never bench pressed my body weight.

Now I’m 31, and I’m somewhere in the awkward middle ground between balding and bald.

Despite my incessant gangliness and my disobedient hair follicles, I can’t say I’ve ever hated my body. But I’ve never been super-pumped that this is the one I ended up with, either.

It probably didn’t help matters that one of the most popular verses among the athletes at my Christian high school was I Corinthians 9:27, which encouraged us to “beat our bodies” and “make them our slaves.” Our bodies were the enemy. They had to be brought into subjection in order for us to achieve either athletic success or holiness.

But we also encountered Ephesians 2:10, which taught us that we were God’s “workmanship,” a word which could perhaps more appropriately be translated “masterpiece.”

Reconciling these two verses was so easy that I didn’t even see the contradiction – obviously, Ephesians 2:10 is talking about me, not my body.

Me was something I saw as wholly internal, a disembodied entity that had to fight through corrupted, rotting flesh to find freedom and expression in the world. I was a Platonist and I didn’t even know it.

But then in college I made the connection that the same guy that wrote I Corinthians 9:27 also wrote Ephesians 2:10.

And I took a human biology class, where I learned how indescribably intricate and beautiful, and how well-planned the human body is.

And I started listening to Louie Giglio and reading Dallas Willard.

I paid a little closer attention to the book of Romans and the Sermon on the Mount.

divineconspiracyWillard’s Divine Conspiracy challenged me to think beneath the surface of Jesus’ command to cut off my hands or gouge out my eyes if they cause me to sin.

I heard about Origen, a man who learned by experience that even a castrated man can lust, and I realized that Jesus must have known that it’s not our hands and eyes that cause us to sin. I realized that even if I did cut off my right hand, the first thing I’d do is figure out how to use my left hand to sin.

And if my body is evil, then why was it so important for Jesus to be incarnated? He was born in carne – “in flesh.” And when he rose from the dead, he didn’t leave his carne behind – he took it to heaven with him.

Jesus, in heaven, is carnal

If you have the same baggage with the word carnal that I do, that last sentence might short-circuit your brain. Or it might just offend you.

But the word carnal, at its most fundamental level, just means “in flesh.”

Here’s what I’ve been studying recently that has helped me understand this:

In Greek, the word soma is the primary word for “body.” It’s used when a writer wants to talk about hands, feet, ears, and epiglottises (Epiglotti? Epiglottoes? Epiglets? …darn plurals). But there’s another word that shows up all over the Bible. It’s the word sarx. Sarx can be used to talk about the body, but it can also refer to the things we usually mean when we use the word carnal. The NIV often translates this word “Sinful Nature,” and it is a word that is often specifically non-physical.

For example, in Galatians 5:16-26, Paul contrasts the works of the sarx (flesh) with the fruit of the pneuma (Spirit). Among his list of the “works of the flesh” are idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, selfish ambition, dissention, and envy. This isn’t the whole list, but it’s most of it. And here’s the point: most of the things Paul lists as acts of the flesh don’t actually require flesh.

In Galatians 5, Paul is drawing a parallel between two primarily non-physical things – two life orientations. Granted, these attitudes result in behaviors that involve our physical bodies, but they don’t come from the body. They are first and primarily internal. Jesus said nearly the same thing when he compared the man who commits adultery to the man who only desires to commit adultery (Matt. 5:27-28). The deeds of the body always flow from our inward orientation.

As he makes clear in Romans 6:13-14, Paul’s view of the body is the same as Jesus’ – the parts of the body are tools (lit. weapons) that can be used for good or for evil.

And as Dallas Willard says, our bodies are our connection to the world, so if we’re going to make any kind of difference in the world, it’s going to be by using our bodies. But when we dissociate “me” from “my body,” we lose our God-given power to make a good and holy impact in the world. We deny that of all things in creation, we alone were created by the touch, and not only the word, of God. It should come as no surprise that our denial of God’s touch in the denial of His Word about our bodies has resulted in our corporate failure to touch the world.

But let us never forget that the ministry of Jesus was a ministry of profound physicality.

Let us never forget that when Jesus healed people, He almost always touched them. The One who had created them with his hands re-created them, restoring their wholeness just as he first knit their DNA.

So can we take delight in “fleshly” pleasure? Most definitely. Jesus certainly did. And he did so in such a way that he left us an example of how to enjoy the great gift God has given us in our bodies.

Anyone who pays even a little attention to the world can see that God’s instructions when it comes to pleasure and our bodies are simply His explanation of the best way of living.

One of the reasons God asks us to keep sex within the marriage covenant is that He knows sex is better there.

One of the reasons he asks us to handle our money wisely is that he knows the great joy of being free from debt and free to exercise extreme generosity.

He’s the one who made strawberries taste good, and poison taste bad.

Tim3He’s the one who first thought up the mountains.

And the flowers.

And sunsets.

And the ocean.

And our bodies.

I know a guy who flies all around the world just to take pictures of the most beautiful places on earth. That’s his job. And because he’s really good at it, he’s been able to make a living selling his pictures.

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What I love about his job is that everything he photographs is already there. He just captures it. His job is to help people worship a God who didn’t have to make the world beautiful.

And according to Ephesians 2:10, we, that is, our bodies, are his masterpiece.

So, love your body. It’s your connection to the world. It’s a gift to you from God, and someday, in heaven, it’s going to be perfect, but until then, don’t let sarx use it for evil. Take care of it. And be like Jesus – use it to make other people’s lives better.

The Color of Hope

color of hopeIf you’re anything like me, you’ve been more than a little miffed since about the turn of the millennium with how common it has become for worship leaders to release entire of albums of songs that were written by other people and have already been released elsewhere. Especially when they barely even change the arrangements.

Ok, I’m glad I got that off my chest.

But seriously, it has somehow become a refreshing change of pace for a worship leader to actually write music.

Which is why, when I first heard Jason Stocker’s sophomore release, The Color of Hope, and realized that it was not only all original, but also contained only two songs that were technically “worship songs,” I was more than a tad thankful.

Since his 2007 release The Perfect Day, Stocker has clearly matured artistically. Where The Perfect Day gave us some quality congregational worship tracks offset by quiet, contemplative moments, The Color of Hope explores the joy, pain, and profound confusion of death, complicated relationships, searching for God, and moving on. And at each point, he asks the question, What does hope look like now?

For me, the most profound moment on the record comes on “Fade Away,” which, like “When I Close My Eyes” and “I’m Just Afraid I’m Losing You,” explores a singular moment, a singular phase of Stocker’s grief in the wake of the sudden loss of his father 14 years ago. The vocal track, which was recorded in a single take, retains the raw emotion and vulnerability that motivated its composition so long ago, and like all great artistic expression, it gives me a window into one man’s moment of unique suffering, thus offering the opportunity for the cathartic release of my own. The track’s cracking, tentative musicality assures me in my own moments of grief that I am not alone in wondering why God seems so often to show up too late.

Where “Fade Away” bares the soul of sudden grief in all its confusion, anger, and despair, “I’m Just Afraid I’m Losing You” revisits that same grief years later, when memories have begun to fade and moments of shouldn’t I be over this by now? have become commonplace. The reference to being “buried alive” borrows from an episode of Monk in which Tony Shalhoub’s character works to sort through the complicated emotions of being years removed from the death of his wife. It seems to me that Stocker is right on here – sooner or later, we’ll all be buried alive. And someday, years and years later, we’ll be fine, even if it’s not until heaven. But it’s that long journey between the two that nearly kills us. And that deadly middle ground is where so many of us live.

“10 Years,” the fourth track, is Stocker’s unapologetic exaggeration of what a ten year reunion might look like for a man who had been more than a little obsessive over his high school flame and never really gotten over losing her. Thinking about Stocker paging through an old yearbook while he wrote the lyrics makes me grin every time I listen to it.

“Free,” which follows “10 Years,” explores the awkward powerlessness of trying to decide what to do when the divorce you didn’t ask for is finalized, and stands as an anthem of sorts for those who refuse to believe that life is over once it gets tainted by our own mistakes or the mistakes of others.

“Another Holiday,” which was written about the tentative early stages of Stocker’s relationship with his now wife Krista, gives voice to the insecurities of a man wondering whether he’ll be quite enough to make her happy, and whether it’s worth the risk to try.

And a few tracks later is “Butterflies,” a wedding song that brilliantly pairs several unexpected lyrical moves with instrumentation that could very well be the soundtrack for the flight of a butterfly.

For me, the two most sing-able tracks are “When I Close My Eyes,” which was the first single, and “Be Still and Know,” which you may swear is a cover because it’s so dang catchy that you’ll think it’s that favorite song you haven’t heard in years and forgot about. Stocker says his daughter makes him sing it to her every single night before bed, and its placement right before “Fade Away” may create something of a shock to your system, but to the attentive listener the pairing becomes an insightful juxtaposition of a young girl’s hope in an unknown future and an older man’s more melancholy hope despite a still-too-fresh, painful past.jason

“Hold On,” which appears exactly in the middle of the album, celebrates the hope of perseverance – those moments of chaos and failure in which holding on is the only option for survival. Birthed out of the morning a friend of Stocker’s woke up next to a woman he didn’t recognize after a night of excessive drinking and had to decide how to approach his wife about it, the song is a challenge to stand up and take responsibility for creating a brighter future despite the temptation to give up in the wake of profound failure. It also begins with Stocker’s own favorite moment on the record, a guitar riff that, he says, “sounds like a T-Rex.”

And finally, the “bookends” of the album, “Sing Your Melody” and “Run,” are the two congregational worship songs Stocker chooses to include, which seems quite appropriate given the album’s theme. Hope begins with commitment and faith, and “Sing Your Melody” asks God to grant the courage to tell the truth about God, life, and hope, which is exactly what Stocker does in the tracks that follow. The rising choral finish of “Run” not only brings in a welcome gospel feel to the conclusion of the album, it also serves as a doxology, sending us out with the kind of hope that reminds us that, regardless of the mire of our histories, we were made to run. And running always faces us forward, into the future.

Hope, it seems, is not a monochromatic virtue. Though it may be tempting to seek a hope that ignores the messiness of being human, true hope, the kind of hope the God of the Bible offers us, incarnates itself in even our darkest moments. And frankly, any other hope is only a sham, for if hope does not have the vitality to reach into the tar of grief and failure and pull me out into the light, what can it possibly do for me?

The album can be purchased here.