Saturday, October 8, 2011

There and Back Again: A Garden Tale (Part 1)

There are a few obsessions I have -- apart from John Piper, of course. One is resurrection. I am in love with new life and resurrection language and imagery, but this is a topic for another day. I am also obsessed with this idea of reconciliation and its dark cause and wonderful fulfillment in both future hope and present relational experience of the God of the universe, but this can wait too.

The garden. My obsession with the garden finds its root in the fact that I was made for it. The Pentateuch opens with anticipation, expectation, pregnant mystery giving birth to the land conceived in eternity past. "In the beginning" to the modern reader sounds so antiquated, but at the beginning these words could only look ahead to a living, breathing land that was full of perfect and glorious means and ends. Yes, means AND ends.

God knew them both. The wonder and mystery of the end. The tragedy and triumph of the means. Life is precious, but life out of death is thrilling, an unexpected plot twist in the ever darkening cosmic story; he who finds life past the brink of death finds its true meaning.

This garden life envelopes time and space. In the beginning, the garden tells us of what should have been the true man as he walked side by side with his Creator. At the end, the garden awaits once more, the hope of restoration and everlasting fulfillment. Between these bookends, as men endure the hell of turning away from God and condemn themselves to a true, literal hell, the anti-garden, one emerges living the life that every one of us secretly wants and knows we should have lived. This one true man comes with a message: Trust me, lay your heavy burdens and your dead life on me that I may free you to walk in all the fullness of mine.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Meet the Heretic

My name is Paul. And I am a recovering mud-slinger. It has been 22 months since I called someone a heretic. They may have deserved it, but then again, maybe not.

Almost two years ago, I used this word three times in a span of just two months. My friend, Meredith, happened to be present on all three occasions and likely didn't see my best side. Greg Boyd I called a heretic for his stance on the dangerous open theism. Rob Bell I had called a heretic for the collective of what I deemed unbiblical teaching. And Joel Osteen I called a heretic when maybe false teacher was a better designation.

I fear that after 22 months of sobriety I am on the verge of falling right back into my old ways. But it must be said, maybe just this one more time. Just once more.

I am a heretic.

I don't expect this admission will light up the blogosphere or make front page news, frankly because no one has ever heard of me in my little corner of the web. You wouldn't be privy to this insight had you not stumbled across this blog. You would have gone about your business and never been the wiser.

You see, high up in the mountains where few go without a donkey, I committed heresy before my believing friend and his wife, a Muslim. Maybe I get a pass because I heresied in Arabic, but I must admit that I knew what I was saying. Maybe I get a pass because it was an explanation of the trinity, but after ten years of following Jesus shouldn't I have that one locked down by now?

As I shared a story, she got the impression that Jesus was the Holy Spirit. Naturally, any good trinitarian would be quick to correct this. A good trinitarian knows there is one substance and three persons.

But how to express this in words that she would understand? I began by explaining the multiple roles of her husband, Ahmad. He is one person, but fulfills three roles. He is a father to his three children. He is a son to his own father. And he is a worker at the local butcher. Straddling the heresy line, I reminded her that this was only an example, a picture.

She didn't completely understand yet. So I tried again by showing her Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River. We had gone through this story the previous day. Who is present? The Father speaks. The Spirit descends in the form of a dove. And the Son rises out of the water. This was it I thought, the perfect example from the Bible!

Well, she wasn't there yet. That's when I said it. They may not let me come home after this one. I could be excommunicated. They'll write books and blogs against me. I may forever bear the label "heretic", my scarlet letter. But I just didn't know how else to show it.

"We believe that God is one," I said to her, "and the Book says this in the Old Testament and the New Testament. But God shows Himself to men as a Father, a Son, and a Spirit."

In the wake of this horrendous representation of a crucial piece of Christian doctrine, I realize that anyone can fall into heresy, albeit mistakenly. It is a thin line between good teaching and bad teaching and I guess it was just my turn to cross it. Surely everyone has crossed this line once or twice. I'm not saying we reward people who camp out on the other side of the line, but that we have some understanding for people when they slip up from time to time. And when I say we, I'm firstly talking to myself.

Perhaps a little humility will go a long way in understanding people rather than judging them for theological views that may still be in process and condemning them for their process theology. After all, we believers in the only begotten Son are all continually being moved toward perfection through Him, whatever that may look like. We're being conformed to His image, even heretical offenders like me.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Kindness and Severity (Or, Islamic Intolerance)

The Muslim world demands to be heard. It demands respect. It demands tolerance. The Muslim world demands to be given the place of honor that it has not earned. This is not the quiet pleading of a weak, crippled beggar child who tugs at the pant legs of passersby on the street. Rather, it is the screaming of an abused, neglected, marginalized child who thirsts for attention. A child filled with violent rage, its craving grows with every new journalist assigned to cover its many heinous crimes.

The Muslim world demands airtime, even a brief flash across the news ticker, but once it has your attention, it demands more. It demands a hearing, and with that hearing an understanding, and with that understanding an alliance. It demands your respect, your cooperation, and your tolerance. It will have your tolerance, or your life. Islam has forced on the world its need to be tolerated, recognized, and showered with praise on the world stage, but behind the new iron curtain of Sharia law tolerance is nowhere to be found. One by one, Arab leaders air their grievances and demand reparations and justice only to return to their homes where they violently suppress their own national minority voices.

Nationalism is not the driving force in the Muslim world, but insecurity. The citizens of this world do not hoist high the national colors, call out for global acceptance, and aggressively defend their actions and religion as a result of nationalism, but because of an intense insecurity that plagues the entire culture. It is not praise that falls from the lips of its people, but a continual defense even when there is not the slightest hint of accusation. And arguments for this defense thrive in the realm of poor scholarship, half-truths, and misrepresented facts. I am told the world is turning to Islam en masse. I am told that all civilization hinges on Islam juxtaposed to the roadblock of what the Europeans call civilization. I am told that any of today's technological advances are the direct result of Islamic civilization. I am told that every single person on the earth is born a Muslim. The world watches on as an entire race of people labors to continually prove their great worth and value to the world. They yearn for your attention and your allegiance. The average citizen who falls prey to this pervasive insecurity utterly rejects, mocks, and abuses the very cross by which he can be fulfilled.

The great message of tolerance preached by the Muslim world is utterly empty behind closed doors. Day after day, my Muslim friends command me to enter Islam. They force on me this decision and command me to convert. No arguments are necessary, but simply my submission. The residents of my city continually clamor for my attention in matters of religion, their religion. The moment I turn the conversation to the cross, the resurrection, and the payment of mankind's sin the conversation has become unacceptable. Strong arguments for the Christian position are not met with thoughtful dialogue, but scorn. Presentations of gospel truth are not met with the question "What must I do to be saved?", but fear of the secret police. Prayer for the sick is not met with gratitude and expectant faith, but mockery and abuse.

If I may for a moment address my Muslim neighbors: your blood is not on my hands.

There will come a day when you stand before the throne of God almighty and you will not be able to claim ignorance. You will be held accountable for your rejection and abuse of the only beloved Son who came to ransom mankind. God will exchange a lifetime of kindness for the severity reserved for those cast into the outer darkness. "Behold!" cries Paul, "the kindness and severity of God."

Monday, August 22, 2011

From Paul's Journal: Tyrants and Thieves

There is a weight associated with a relationship that looks ahead to marriage. There is a heavy burden, it seems, to truly be the man that God has called me to be. I feel it pressing down on my shoulders as a squat bar digging into my bones and causing me to buckle down and focus on the goal ahead. There is a responsibility that I feel I have taken on. I have not yet made the commitment, evidenced by a wedding ring, but I will be tasked with the duty and great delight to provide for my wife, treasure her, protect her, honor her, and, without hesitation, lay down my life for her -- and this does not necessarily mean dying, though that is there as well.

Also, I will be charged to lead my wife. Leadership should be the expectation of all men. We are all called to lead in some way or other, but few take this seriously. Leadership is a fine line, and not for the faint of heart. There are many men who attempt to call what it is they do leadership, but they are deceived and sadly mistaken.

Some are thieves; they steal, kill, and destroy like their father. The thief takes what he wants, and in the end never really wants what was taken. Indeed, what he took did not belong to him, but neither does it become his. He will never be satisfied; he grasps for every rose within his reach, causing all to wilt.

Some are tyrants; they overpower, rule, and dominate like their father. The tyrant abuses and controls, but will never control his abusive power. Under the tyrant, there is no freedom until death do you part.

And some are leaders; they serve, understand, and love like their Father. With humility, the leader serves. With patience, he listens. He recognizes that he has been forgiven much, and therefore loves much. Because of the life Jesus is living through him, the leader is patient, kind, not jealous; he does not brag and is not arrogant, he does not act unbecomingly; he does not seek his own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; he bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

This is a heavy burden to bear for any leader. It is heavy for any man. This burden is far too much for any son or daughter of Adam to bear. As I contemplated these things, the weight grew even heavier when I decided to ask Rebekah's father permission to begin dating her. This would set in motion the process by which I would one day take full responsibility to lead his precious daughter.

As I sought the Lord that week, I asked Him to give me a promise from His Word.

"Come to Me," He said, "all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light."

Baptism and Ramadan

With whom do you identify?

We all must answer this question. And, in fact, we do. Every day we attest to our identity by the way we live and the places we go, those we follow and those we shun. The question can be rephrased a hundred different ways: Where does your allegiance lie? Whose badge do you wear? Whose colors do you raise? Whose team do you support?

With whom do you identify and are you willing the world to know?

Now that Ramadan has reached its full potency, all the masks have been stripped and the truth unveiled. People are hungry. They are hot. They are thirsty. Did I mention that the entire Arab world is hungry? An entire people spanning parts of three continents is miserable for a full lunar cycle each year, so stay out of its way, walk on the other side of the street, and, if need be, run for your life. But what is commendable, and certainly notable, is that they will continue to persevere until the end. Ramadan is theirs and they will see it through to the end, if nothing else by mere mechanical, chemical impulses to place one foot in front of the other. Why? Because it is in the DNA, it is who they are.

But in the months leading up to THE celebration of the year -- the most wonderful time of the year, that time of the year when families come together to prepare feasts, bake holiday cookies, and celebrate together -- everyone wants to know of the foreigner: Will you fast? Some are pushier than others, but I have not yet met an Arab Muslim in my North African country who has deflated the notion that I must fast during Ramadan to really belong here. People are thrilled to hear that I fast, but vastly disappointed that I will not fast for Ramadan. When I push a little deeper into this thinking I find that if someone can just get me to reschedule my fasting for Ramadan, I'll be there.

You see, in the Arab world, image is everything. The one thing my friends want from me, maybe even need from me, is to identify with what they are doing. In their eyes, if I will just come along and if I will just identify with them, pray with them, fast with them, then I'm already there: I'm one of them. At the most basic level, I have identified with Islam. And once I'm a Muslim, I am a true North African. My identity is Arab.

This is why baptism is so important in the Christian life. Contrary to popular opinion, baptism is so much more than a glorified bath in an oversize tub. It is more than the drops of water that anoint the head of a new believer. Baptism is more than water, however one chooses to use it. Baptism, at its fundamental, core level, is identification. When Paul says that we are baptized into Christ's death, burial, and resurrection, he is saying that we bought the T-shirt and want the world to know who we now are. I have pledged my allegiance to the new Spirit-driven life that His resurrection signifies.

We make identifications all the time. We go to a certain school, cheer for a certain team, and give ourselves names like "Calvinist", "Dispensational", and "Bedside Baptist". How I identify myself begins to define me. This is why when my identity is wrapped up in all the things I'm against, I begin looking for fights around every corner. And when my identity is secure in the truths of Ephesians 1, I can rest easy knowing that I am a chosen, adopted son without fear of endangering my long-awaited inheritance.

That with which I truly identify will be evident in my life. She identifies with the Texas Rangers, and proudly wears the hat wherever she goes. He identifies with a certain political party, and anyone who doubts him can look to the pin on his jacket. True identification is to march out to war with the king and proudly wear his colors at whatever cost. Take off the old self, put on the garb of the new self. True identification with Christ's resurrection is to yield oneself to the transformative power of the Spirit; yes, walking in newness of life is proof of identification.

So, again, with whom do you identify?

But, perhaps, the more telling question is with whom would our neighbors say we identify?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hope Floats

"But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you." - Matthew 6:33
Coming through the tempest, I now find myself lying on the shore, exhausted and weak. For the longest time, I swam against the current, trying to reach a goal from which a greater force was intent on keeping me for one reason or another. In the midst of those interminable moments returning to shore, swimming through the rough, suffocating waters, I feared that my vain striving to reach some distant buoy would prove fatal, not in an extravagant or eloquent death that people would remember and retell again and again as a story of bravery and courage to the last breath, but simply sinking into nonexistence, swallowed up by the deep waters and forgotten.

I nearly lost heart that day at a beach in Torremolinos, just as I nearly lost heart that summer in the mountains of Africa. Doubt followed closely on the heels of loss of faith and death began to creep into my heart and spread through my limbs as I struggled in the direction of shore. Empty and sinking, I cried out in anguish for mercy and hope was reborn. The only hope that is capable of restoring my spirit, reinvigorating my passion, and re-centering my heart after it had once more strayed.

On that shore I lie, drained of all of me. Lying at the edge of the sea where I had given my last vain effort. Lying safe from the driving waves in which I was sinking into the deep waters of oblivion to the notice of no one. Spread out on the sand, my chest heaves as the waves continue to crash and surge over my weary body. Hope is rekindled as dependence is set right in my life, no longer the hand-puppet to suffocate me at the whim of selfish desires holding it captive; its icy fingers now slowly release from around my neck. For a time, dependence had become confused in me, given to that which was undeserving. My hope is not reliance on the girl I met two months ago in Sevilla though in the end it was her silence that served to painfully return me to dependence on the only One who will never fail me. My hope is not contingent upon advantageous circumstances, warm feelings, or the returned affection of a woman, nor should it be shaken -- if held firm by meditation on what has already been proven true in the world and in my own life -- by a lack of any one or all of these elements. My hope was and now remains He who rescued me after I had worked so hard to swim my own way only to find myself drowning in an unforgiving ocean. Even when I no longer held on to hope, He held on to me.

Now just ten days removed from my near death experience, with fresh perspective and a focus rebuilt on the foundation of the Creator of heaven and earth, He has enacted the process by which it seems He will give me one of His most precious gifts. And if there is one thing I have learned this summer, it is to not elevate gift above Giver. As I have sought the Lord these past few days, He has met me with wisdom, timely counsel, and ever-clearer direction. This morning I awoke and found myself soaking up a sermon preached by Jesus long ago. He proclaimed, "Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness." Seek the Giver, for then "all these things will be added to you."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

From Paul's Journal: The Adventure Instinct

I'm home now; finally returned to my city. I've never been one for what they call home; home was something from which one must escape, a captivity into which freedom called. Stained and dreary, those four walls pressed in on me for years. I have not settled since, always chasing freedom but finding new walls. It may very well be that a woman's touch is needed to transform a dungeon into a home.

Though, on the other hand, it may simply be a matter of the heart, but matters of the heart are never simple. Perhaps, I'm growing weary of running. And what is a runner who has no destination? To always run and have no finish line quickly compounds the fatigue. Maybe this is the cause of that sudden, unexpected loss of the wild, escapist spirit that many men don't realize has left until mid-life. They lose the adventurer inside, that wanderer running from old, cell walls, that killer instinct. The instinct that the youthful fighter feeds off, but when suddenly it leaves, if not replaced by anything substantive leaves him dead in the water, old and washed up, fully at the mercy of his opponent.

So this growing desire for home, or a home -- because home itself does not necessarily have to be something I have already known or seen or heard, but perhaps a new invention, or a remixed solution fortified with better ingredients -- though it seems to come at the cost of the killer instinct falling away, does not have to be something bad. A tree which has suddenly lost its leaves will rest and return after a season fully rejuvenated.

To live and learn this idea of home does not of necessity have to mean the death of something -- adventure, joy, or fullness of life -- but a transformation, a step into the unknown. How else does a duckling discover its natural swimming ability unless it pokes through the shell and stumbles past the broken pieces?

Naturally, at this stage of my life, one of the biggest upcoming steps to discovering and integrating home will be starting a family. But this itself is another big adventure, so where do men go wrong, what is the cause of the crisis many men experience at mid-life?

It seems to me that the root can be found in the attitude toward the two stages of life. There is an instinct in many men my age to wander, explore, adventure, and experience; let's call this the adventure instinct. Could it be, as I have said, that this adventure instinct gets fatigued and must, for a time, go into hibernation or briefly lie dormant in order to refresh? That many families often begin while this instinct is dormant, leading to later discontent when the man feels that home has again lost its freedom and reverted to the old, dirty cell walls.

So what is the solution? What is the remedy and road to a healthy family? I would suggest that the answer is in the object of that adventure instinct. The wandering season I am in now is feeding this instinct, as well as, I am sure, early married life will also be a source of new adventure. But it seems like the adventure instinct is seeking, even dependent on, something to fulfill it. It is possible that I could let the instinct run away with me and chase fulfillment in traveling, hiking, rock climbing, and all the other excitement that awaits me on this side of the world. In the next stage, I could seek fulfillment in my wife, my kids, and this whole home idea. If these are the objects of my adventure instinct and its fulfillment, they will all fail me.

The object, the goal, must be a greater adventure, a more luscious pleasure, and a bigger joy than any object I have so far named. My hope must be the One who secured it. My joy, He who is not only the essence of beauty, but her source. My adventure, He who created the wildest habitations and the fiercest instincts.

If I am to step into this new stage of life, I must rest on the Foundation which will hold all the stages together. If I am to love my wife as she deserves to be loved and raise my children to know the greatest Adventure, then they cannot be the first focus. In fact, they will only come into right focus when I use the proper lens to view them. To be a consistent man, a passionate husband, and an adventurous dad, I must be setting the right lens now in advance.

"Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth." (Col 3:2) If Paul sees it as necessary to inform us to do this, it's likely that it will not just come naturally. Whatever season my adventure instinct is in, I must be alert and continually forming this instinct by setting my mind on the things above.