Generally speaking, I am not an especially “sad” person. On most days, I wake up and go through my days relatively happy or at least busy. Those who do not know me well would be surprised to know that I have, for as long as I can remember, struggled with intense bouts of periodic melancholy. I hesitate to use the word “depression” because it carries the connotation of a medically or psychologically diagnosed condition. I’ve never been clinically diagnosed that way, but I would be unsurprised if such diagnosis were ever applied to me.

When I was a teenager it was not unusual for me to have episodes of intense emotional distress (i.e. weeping and/or being perpetually on the edge of tears) for hours on end, though my outer demeanor betrayed none of that and my parents were absolutely unaware that crying myself to sleep was not at all uncommon. I was rather ashamed to tell them that. Experiencing such depth of emotion seemed to me to be “weak” and I didn’t want to 1) embarrass my parents for having such a punk for a son, 2) make them feel badly for raising a son who couldn’t keep it together, or 3) admit that how terrified I was of the intensity of my own emotions.

To cope with all of this, I became outwardly a very emotionally distant person who was charming and yet in possession of a biting sarcastic wit. The painful shyness of my youth was covered up well under a veneer of impassibility and a stubborn inward decision to never be dependent on anyone. I never asked for help for anything; a habit that still persists to this day. In the leadership I rose to in college, I was extremely competent and utterly independent, but also very distant and uncompassionate to those around me. I could with no emotion whatever humiliate and crush someone who opposed me without any sense of real guilt.

Over the years, I’ve mostly matured past many of these sinful behaviors, constructed as they were to prevent me from dealing with the inward depression I periodically experienced. They will always be strong temptations to me. God has been gracious to me, and I pray he has repaired the damage I undoubtedly caused to many people through the years. Even so, I still struggle with depression, though thankfully not as in previous years. When it comes, it no longer washes over me like a tidal wave, but rather seeps in and creeps up, like a slowly rising flood slowly stripping me of desire or passion or motivation. Once it has fully come, simply getting through the day feels like a major accomplishment, though there is a grace that seems to come when I must minister to others. When that grace lifts, I rely on the discipline of obedience and steadfast trust in God to carry me through. Sometimes this barely feels like enough.

I do not write this in pity, nor in regret. I do wonder for those who have this struggle and minister to others especially how you cope with it.

Theological worldviews

What’s your theological worldview?
You scored as a Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan

You are an evangelical in the Wesleyan tradition. You believe that God’s grace enables you to choose to believe in him, even though you yourself are totally depraved. The gift of the Holy Spirit gives you assurance of your salvation, and he also enables you to live the life of obedience to which God has called us. You are influenced heavily by John Wesley and the Methodists.

Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan
Neo orthodox
Reformed Evangelical
Roman Catholic
Classical Liberal
Modern Liberal

Embracing Death

Death is an unpopular topic in the blogosphere, in politics, and in church. We are as a society consumed with life and with youth. Death is only discussed as a bludgeon to frighten or to cajole others into action, as in politics (John McCain will die at any minute!!!) or in churches (if you die today do you know where you will spend eternity?). Other than that, we don’t think about death and we do all we can to push the reality of our own mortality out of our minds and away from our conversation. Death is something we whisper about, lie to our children about, and hedge about with euphemisms designed to “soften the blow” that that which is will no longer be.

This tendency to avoid death is obvious in how we go about church and about theological reflection; indeed it is obvious in everything we do, and for good reason. Death is singularly unpleasant, yet it is also universal. It is one of two universal human experiences: birth and death. Everything else is, well… everything else. And we spend most of our time on the everything else, pausing only when forced by the intrusion of death into our lives to deal with mortality. Otherwise we go on our way, and new emerging theologians go on about how the church has focused too much on the life to come and not enough on the here and now. Denominations split over questions of ordination, marriage and divorce but all agree that death is a bad thing and we shouldn’t talk about it too much less we drive people away.

It is a singularly modern thing that we can so easily avoid talking about or dealing with death, or that our theologians and pastors get away with unsatisfying answers and flat avoidance of the issue. Our children can easily be shielded from the reality of death. When I ask my age peers how many funerals they have attended in their lives, they can usually count them on one hand. I’ve lost track of how many funerals I’ve attended through the years. So few of us ever see death up close and personal. Death is something that happens to the old and to the distant — almost always away from home, in hospitals, in nursing homes, and in tragedies half the world away.

This is all new. For most of human history, death was something with which people, even children, were intimately familiar. Mothers died in childbirth, grandfathers keeled over while chopping wood, and playmates drowned in creeks and rivers with alarming regularity. No one was pleased to have death visit them, but we were better equipped to deal with it when it came. Not only that, but the closeness of death meant that we were better able to deal with life.

In a world where death was not invisible, age was more respected. The absence of grandfathers wisdom around the dinner table was felt as an actual loss, and the foolishness of the young is much more evident when the consequences of their foolishness was more immediate and less theoretical. Likewise the present theological (and political) obsession with youth and with changing the world NOW would be tempered by a more visceral understanding that NOW is not all there is; that death comes to us all and that in death there is a reckoning more final than any other. Death makes life more dear and precious, and makes choices more stark. Our forefathers didn’t have time for the navel gazing adulthood delaying indecision that marks the current generation.

And this last piece is really the point of this post. All of life really is a negotiation with death. The brevity of our life is belied by the expansiveness of our choices in a post modern world. My students, fifteen years my junior, do not realize that those fifteen years senior to me are staring down the last twenty five to thirty years of life. Nor do they recognize that every choice they now make is a decision to let some other option die. As much as the current “yes we can” mantra of preachers and politicians resounds to the contrary, the reality is “no we can’t.” No, we can’t be both fireman and lawyers, and doctors and astronauts as we imagined when we were in elementary school. No we can’t eliminate poverty and injustice as many in college and beyond believe. No we can’t defy without consequences the biological restraints that constrain the vocational and familial choices of men and women. No we can’t reverse the fundamental reality of human depravity by changing the social structures that surround us.

Growing to maturity in faith as in everything else is a process of embracing death; the death of foolish dreams and good dreams alike, the death of choices, the death of opportunity, the death of friendships, of careers, of ideas we have about ourselves, of hopes we have for our families, and the death of those most close to us. This embrace of death gives us a certain sobriety about life, and wisdom. It is the wisdom of those who know that they alone will not change the world, and that society will not be healed by virtue of voting for the right candidate or planting the right church or having the right ideas. It is an embrace of death that frees us from the tyranny of relevancy, because we know that what is most important is always relevant and that presentation is much less important than substance. In short, embracing death gives us the freedom to be human and delivers us from our pretensions of god-hood. It reminds us that being human is quite good enough, thank you very much, and is really all that is expected of us.

On Singleness #1

The first in a possible series

A more difficult topic for a post I cannot imagine than that of singleness and the Christian life. It is intrinsically difficult to treat, but rather emotively so for someone who has obtained to nearly half of the promised three score and ten without the benefit and boundedness of the marital covenant. Most of what I have read and most of what has been written concerning singleness is presented from perspectives much unlike my own; the perspective of those who are still under the age of thirty and that of women who have passed that age and find themselves increasingly concerned about the ticking of the “biological clock” that seems ever louder with each coming year. Virtually nothing I’ve read deals well or at all with the condition of singleness for those in ministry, aside from rote recitations of St. Paul’s comments pertaining to the benefit of singleness for a those devoted a life of ministry. None of these treatments have been especially useful to me as I reflect upon my own blessed state (and it is blessed, despite intimations to the contrary contained in this post).

That singleness is such a poorly addressed issue (and I speak of course in context of contemporary American Christianity) is something for which the church ought to have no excuse. Our Lord was, of course, a single man as was St. Paul. The single celibate life has been celebrated throughout the history of the Church and in Roman Catholicism priests are required to express the chastity through remaining single rather than within the bonds of marriage. In the current climate of the Church however, singleness, though increasingly common, is viewed somewhat suspiciously and the older one gets without marrying the greater the level of attendant suspicion and concomitant pity, though such pity is generally veiled. Occasionally there is an expression of contrived envy which is barely credible and certainly not encouraging, though I know the hearts of the people who express such sentiment are usually pure. To hear, “But oh you get to devote time to the Lord and you are free to really do whatever without worrying about a family,” is about as convincing as the descriptions given by short term missionaries of the poor they met on mission; every loves to talk about how much freedom and joy in the Lord they have, but no one would ever trade places with them.

I contend that singleness is the default state of mankind; we are born single and we die single. Marriage on average takes somewhere between 1/3 and 2/3 of a person’s life and much of that time is consumed in the bearing and rearing of children, a noble and God ordained ministry if ever there was any. However even though the average age of marriage has continued to rise (concurrently with decreased community and other support for young marriage) the discipleship and theological instruction concerning singleness tends to presume marriage will take place before the age of thirty, which for most people it will. When a person, especially a man, reaches the age of thirty, the Church really has nothing left to say to him. For those in the world to attain the age of thirty and to be unmarried is not surprising, and the culture provides models (albeit horrid and inaccurate ones) for what a thirty-something unmarried man is supposed to be and/or do. For the Christian, well, there’s always the singles group at church filled with women you either don’t want to date because they have issues you just don’t want to put up with or who don’t want to date you because they’re still waiting on a Prince Charming Knight in Shining Armor who is merely the Christianized version of popular stereotypes. (I don’t mean to hate on the ladies, but I’m writing from a guy’s perspective)

Speaking of stereotypes, there are some myths to singleness that ought to be put readily to rest or at least set aside as not applying to anyone I know. Again here I am speaking about Christians (and mostly about guys) so…

Myth: Single guys are not mature or ready to commit.
Truth: Single guys are as mature/immature commitment ready/commitment phobic as the Christian women they interact with. We need to kill the lie that women are more mature than men. They are not.

Myth: Singles have lots of freedom and time on their hands
Truth: The freedom of making every decision by oneself and tackling every household chore alone and not having help with simple life management takes up more time than you might imagine

Myth: Singles can devote themselves more fully to the Lord in ministry
Truth: Well this is true; it’s in the Bible. But, it is true with a caveat that single people in ministry are not really taken very seriously at all and are never really perceived as being adults.

Myth: Single guys have the advantage because at least they can take the initiative in relationship
Truth: This is also true with a caveat; it is freaking emotionally draining to ask someone out only to be told no, and then to know that you can’t ask anyone in that woman’s circle of friends out ever because then you get either the creepy weird Christian guy label or the arrogant just wants to get married Christian playboy label attached to you.

Myth: Singles have money because they don’t have a family to support
Truth: Singles, especially guys, are usually broke. Do you have any idea how much stuff people give you for free when you’re married? And not just at the wedding, but over and again. And don’t forget that useful two income thing that most folks have going.

Myth: Marriage kills your social life; singles have a better social life
Truth: Not really.

All in all singleness is not all it’s cracked up to be, so I’ve been lately advising students to marry sooner rather than later. They all think I’m strange and screw their faces into grimaces when I advise this. They are too young, too immature they say. But I know that they won’t outgrow their selfishness by spending the next 7 years focusing on their career and their self development. Besides, that old biological clock is still ticking.

For such a time as this: the salvation of the American church

What is it the “plain gospel?” It’s the kind of question that keeps missiologists, pastors, theologians, seminarians and online pontificators busy. While this question has as many answers as it does inquisitors, I ask it primarily in the matrix of Christian faith and culture.

As a historic fact we acknowledge that a large body of what has come down to us in the Christian tradition was formed in the context of the evangelization of Europe. It took significant work to translate a Middle Eastern desert Messiah into the context of a hill and dale European world. The questions that are answered by the systematic theologians studied around the world are the questions largely of European believers in a European context addressing European realities. This is not to suggest that our systematic theologies are somehow untrue, but simply that they may be inadequate to the task of carrying the “plain gospel” to the ends of the earth.

As the locus of the church shifts significantly from North and West to East and South, believers in other parts of the world are unlikely to remain content regurgitating what they’ve received as gospel truth. Despite the fervor with which we defend our systems, Calvinism, Arminianism, and every other –ism is not the gospel, and frankly are not the only authentic ways of understanding or even conceptualizing the gospel. Whatever view we hold, we ought to hold with a healthy dose of humility. God in his grace has made us joint heirs with Christ, and that is something of which none can boast.

In any event, I believe that ethnic minority Christians have a unique opportunity to do theology in a new way. As people who are both thoroughly Americanized but also distinctly “other” there may be some unique theological purposes that God wants to work out through our communities. How this might take place I do not know. In Europe the revitalization of European Christianity is in the hands of those who are not of European extraction. And if we would be honest, despite all the shifting of deck chairs in Evangelicalism, there are not markedly more people following Jesus – especially among White Americans.

Non-White students now comprise fully 40% of students involved in groups like InterVarsity. It may well be that we, like Esther, have been called for such a time as this; that the salvation of the American church lies with us. This revitalization cannot happen however if we simply continue to unthinkingly parrot the systems, ways of being church, and worship structures that have dominated the American landscape.

Ignorance of the unseen

Christians are believers in the supernatural.  I would say that if one claims to be a follower of Jesus, he cannot fail to acknowledge that there is more in existence than our eyes can see; that there is a supernatural realm which has influence and direct impact on mankind.

This is perhaps a no-brainer, but it seems to me that some of my fellow believers – not the liberals, but those of us who are called conservative or evangelical – increasingly operate or think as if there is no supernatural reality impinging upon events.  As we have, rightly so, embraced the kingdom of God as an important theological paradigm and paid more attention to systemic issues or injustice and poverty, we seem to sometime forget that human effort cannot bring the reign of God, and that some things are not just social justice issues.  Some things are, quite probably, demonically inspired, if not controlled.

I am a socially minded evangelical; I believe in justice, etc.  But the more I think about the issues of the day, the more I am convinced, both by own experience and by my reading, that the devil is busy.  That sounds simple, and it is.  When an issue such as marriage between two men becomes divisive within communities that claim holy scripture as authoritative, it cannot be simply that God is neutral or that the enemy is silent. 

Now I do not claim that any particular person is demonically controlled or inspired.  I don’t know enough to make that claim.  But I believe that we err when we think of things merely as issues of justice or progress or politics and neglect the very real truth that evil exists and that it is personal.

Allow me to take the issue of gay rights.  First homosexuality has graduated rather rapidly over the course of 100 years from a behavior one engages in, to a condition one has, to an identity one is.  And many Christians have embraced this graduation, this evaluation, unthinkingly, without real regard to the consequences of that decision.  Scripture on the other recognizes no such categories for anyone.  According to scripture we are people made in the image of God, infected with a sinful nature, and yet culpable for our behavior.  Everyone of us can sin, and none of us have the option to allow our sin to become our identity.

I bring this up not because it is my major point, but because we as Christians ought to think about the spiritual dynamics around this transition. I was reared within a church tradition that was cognizant of these spiritual realities, but as I’ve been involved with more “mainstream” churches it has become clear to me that most evangelicals functionally operate as materialists.

Of course this notion of being aware of “spiritual” realities can be taken to an extreme – where charismatic becomes charismania and a demon is seen lurking behind every tree or misprint of a church bulletin. Such extremism is well documented and rightly criticized. The alternative however, is less often critiqued from within evangelical circles. If we are people who believe the scripture and whose lives are to be infused with the Holy Spirit, then should it be any surprise to us that there is demonic activity at a personal and systemic level?

Operating, as we often do, in ignorance of the unseen leaves us only the tools of essentially unenlightened reason to discern what Jesus himself said were spiritual truths that require the Spirit to illumine. At the same time, by operating in such a way, we unintentionally reduce Christianity to “‘good works” that are not really that different in practice from just being a nice person who goes to church. Is it any wonder then that our witness to the world is so weak?

Why is it so easy for us to operate in ignorance of the unseen? I believe that it is simply our fear of being out of control. By denying spiritual realities, we retain, or at least seem to retain, a degree of control over our world, and even our relationship with God. We can manage things then from an entirely man centered stance while purporting to be relying on God, when in fact we are functionally atheistic. The stakes are too high for us to continue in this way. As Jesus admonished his disciples when they fail to cast out a demon… some things come out only by prayer and fasting.

Gain the world, lose your…

The easy and clever thing to say would be Seoul, since this blog is a commentary on the intersection of faith and life. It would be fitting too, since questions of immigration and assimilation for Christians involve an intersection of the issues of material prosperity and living faithfully as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

America is a country founded not on a national principle of ethnic solidarity, nor even of geographic commonality. It is founded on an ideology that can be definitively traced back the European Enlightenment. Men of great wealth, extensive property, and high idealism formulated a republic loosely connected to Christian ideas, but more firmly rooted in “liberty,” whatever that means. This is encapsulated in our Declaration of Independence which affirms that men are endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The expansion of the American ideal has taken more than two centuries, and can still be said to be a great unfinished experiment.

Beneath these lofty and idealistic sentiments however, lie another, baser reality which has been as fundamental to the formation of this nation, and which must be taken seriously by Christians who want to engage the culture that surrounds us. If America can be said to have any god, any national religion – it is the god of wealth. Almost every controversy, every major social and political realignment, from the Articles of Confederation to the Civil War to Civil Rights is intimately connected with a “pursuit of happiness” that has all too readily devolved into the pursuit of material and economic prosperity. It was not, contrary to what some people believe, any innate hatred of Africans that led to their enslavement by Europeans, nor was the conquest of indigenous peoples driven primarily by a messianic vision of manifest destiny. Rather both racism and manifest destiny were post facto ideologies developed to justify what is a much baser motive: greed. Free land and free labor were the foundations of the American prosperity we today enjoy. The accumulation of material good is the contemporary manifestation of that religion.

The church, not only in America, but throughout history, has contended with the very real god of Mammon . From the beginning, the apostle had to write warnings against the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself and against the association of material prosperity with God’s blessing. Ironically, I have hardly ever heard a sermon on I Timothy 6.9 about the snares that inevitably trap those who desire to be rich and who find themselves pierced through with “many sorrows.” It is perhaps too unpalatable a passage for those who have swam in these cultural waters for so long.

Part of the mythology of America is that immigrants have flocked here because it is the “land of opportunity.” Like all myths, this one is rooted in fact. America was and is a beacon of economic and even political opportunity. What is obscured in this myth is that in most cases the driving motivation has not been political, but economic, and that those who immigrated are often those with at least some means within their own countries of origin. The poorest cannot afford to escape and the wealthiest have no incentive to leave. So then the immigrants that have come to America often come with the social and cultural skills to “make it.”

What does this have to do with the gospel? If it is difficult to dethrone the god of Mammon for those of us who have been born here; it is even more difficult in the lives of those who came here to pursue Mammon’s fruit. Most contemporary immigrants do not come for the privilege of being better disciples or of worshipping God more freely than in their home countries. Indeed many do not come to worship of the living God until after they have immigrated. Immigrants come to make the best living possible for themselves and for their children.

The cost of that decision is paid not only by the parents who leave comfort and familiarity for what is all too often years of sacrifice. The cost is also paid by their children who are bequeathed an inheritance of a twilight ethnicity and an irrelevant gospel that seems utterly abstracted from the challenges they face day by day.

Reared by parents who prioritize material success over gospel adherence and assimilation for the sake of such prosperity over the value of culture, is it any wonder then that many 2nd generation find themselves also worshipping at the altar of Mammon while experiencing an existential and spiritual void that remains unmet by the culturally neutered gospel to which they’ve been exposed? How can they worship a god who is dis-incarnated – removed from their lives and experience, and irrelevant to their concerns? A Jesus who does not sympathize with the issues faced by latch-key kids with distant parents who demands academic success or at least the façade of social propriety seems less a mighty savior and more a Confucian tyrant dressed up in Western garb.

The Scylla of an irrelevant gospel is met on the other side by an equally ravenous Charybdis that threatens to shipwreck the faith and life of those who ply the waters of this existence. It is the monster of un-ethnicity, a ethnic reality that is affirmed in one place, declared unimportant in another, and altogether ignored in the church, which should be the one place where the totality of our humanity must be confronted and reformed in the image of Christ.

So then over and again the wealth obtained through great sacrifice and worthy effort often issues forth in the destruction of those things held most sacred by all cultures and particularly by Christians. Relationship with God through Christ becomes less important than relationship with “stuff” through VISA. The sharing of hearth and table, the places across which identity and culture are transmitted becomes less important than simply being “a person” distinguished only by the shape of ones eyes, the color of ones skin, and the brand name of the label of the designer purse. All else of history, legacy, story, and culture are sacrificed to Mammon. Gaining the world and losing what matters most.