Archives For Tim Keller

St Thomas AquinasTim Keller and DA Carson, leaders of the Gospel Coalition, recently and unceremoniously booted a fellow member, the high-profile grandson of Billy Graham, Tullian Tchividjian.

The offense?

Heresy.

As a United Methodist, I’m at least encouraged to see church leaders getting hot and bothered over something other than sexuality.

Tchividjian had apparently strayed in his understanding of grace, specifically the doctrine of sanctification.

The notion of one Calvinist telling another Calvinist they’ve got their theology of grace all wrong surely has the ancient Church Fathers, notably St Thomas Aquinas, laughing in their graves.

After all, that Neo-Calvinists today are getting tripped up over issues of grace is not surprising since their namesake, Jean Calvin, screwed the pooch on the doctrine ago.

In Calvin’s severe theology, God’s work of grace and our human freedom are posed as mutually exclusive poles.

And, as anyone who knows their church history knows, Calvin argued that the work of grace is solely the work of only one of those two poles.

The work of justification and sanctification is the gratuitous action of God to which human freedom contributes nothing and plays no part.

Not only is God’s grace infallible- it gets what God wants- it is, ironically enough, coercive. It involves our will not at all; otherwise, Calvin believed it would be disqualified as a work of grace.

In other words, Calvin and much of the Protestantism that followed cast God’s work and human freedom as an either/or binary wherein the presence of one necessitates the exclusion of the other.

The gracious action of God requires the absence of human work while human freedom becomes, by definition, the absence of any action of God.

Thus, the familiar question: ‘Are we saved by God’s grace or by our works?’

For Calvin and many Protestants, it’s an either/or vexation.

It’s odd that it should so, however, since the Christian tradition prior to Calvin saw it not as an either/or but as a both/and.

According to Thomas Aquinas, God’s grace is both infallible and non-coercive. God will eventually get what God wants (friends that we call saints), but God does not do so against our will, without our participation.

God’s work of grace, Aquinas says, requires human consent, for consent is what’s required in any friendship.

But- and this where the either/or goes wrong- that human consent is itself the gracious work of God.

The gracious of God’s salvation requires human willing which is itself the creation of God’s gracious work.

Thus, to the familiar question: ‘Are we saved by God’s grace or by our works?’

Aquinas (and Augustine before him) answer ‘Yes.’ Both/And.

The work of grace is 100% the work of God, but paradoxically the work of grace is 100% human freedom because that freedom is what God’s gracious action creates.

To Aquinas, the either/or dichotomy of what became Calvinism produces a mistaken- even idolatrous- picture of God. It’s why Aquinas begins his Summa so ploddingly, unpacking exactly what God is and what is not God. The god of the mutually exclusive, either/or, God’s Action vs Human Action binary is not God. Is not the God Who Is. To suppose, as most modern Christians do, that what makes my actions free is that I’m the only agent responsible for them is to misunderstand the God who holds all things in being at all times.

After all, if I decided to pick up my dog and throw her out the window, you might say that I’ve done so of my own free will, that God had nothing do with it. Except in every moment of that decision and action God was actively holding me in existence (and my dog) and, apart from us, God was actively holding in existence the laws of gravity that would guarantee my dog met an unpleasant end.

God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

For our every action, both God and we are the causes of them (which means evil is not a dilemma that can be explained away by citing ‘human freedom’).

The idolatrous problem with the either/or binary of Calvinism can be seen in the two options which it produced in the modern world:

1.) A loathsome god who, as Thomist Denys Turner puts it, is “a hands-on, interfering busybody’ acting apart from the actions of his creatures. This is the magic-genie god of Joel Osteen et al, but it’s also the angry, wrathful god who sends natural disasters to punish for political positions.

 

2.) The hands-off Deist god whose relationship to the world is evacuated of any presence and power exactly in those places our lives have their most meaning and value. This is the god of nearly everyone else.

In both instances, the either/or binary reduces God to the level of another creature within the universe, and in both human freedom is exclusive of God’s acting.

When God’s not acting, offering lucky parking spaces or sending down torment, God’s not acting.

But for Thomas the Church Fathers before him, it’s never either/or. It’s is always both/and because God is the God who just IS. Existence itself. God is nearer to me than I am to myself. There is nothing in the universe and no action of ours that is not free and uncoerced, yet simultaneously- and perhaps paradoxically- there is nothing in the universe and no action of ours of which God is not the cause.

 

 

imagesIs it because we have no TULIP of our own?

I wonder after reading this article in the NY Times about the Neo-Calvinist revival. I have my hunches. You?

Here’s the article:

For those who are sad that the year-end news quizzes are past, here’s one to start 2014: If you have joined a church that preaches a Tulip theology, does that mean a) the pastor bakes flowers into the communion wafers, b) the pastor believes that flowers that rise again every spring symbolize the resurrection, or c) the pastor is a Calvinist?

As an increasing number of Christians know, the answer is “c.” The acronym summarizes John Calvin’s so-called doctrines of grace, with their emphasis on sinfulness and predestination. The T is for man’s Total Depravity. The U is for Unconditional Election, which means that God has already decided who will be saved, without regard to any condition in them, or anything they can do to earn their salvation.

The acronym gets no cheerier from there.

Evangelicalism is in the midst of a Calvinist revival. Increasing numbers of preachers and professors teach the views of the 16th-century French reformer. Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Tim Keller — megachurch preachers and important evangelical authors — are all Calvinist. Attendance at Calvin-influenced worship conferences and churches is up, particularly among worshipers in their 20s and 30s.

In the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, the rise of Calvinism has provoked discord. In a 2012 poll of 1,066 Southern Baptist pastors conducted by LifeWay Research, a nonprofit group associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, 30 percent considered their churches Calvinist — while twice as many were concerned “about the impact of Calvinism.”

Calvinism is a theological orientation, not a denomination or organization. The Puritans were Calvinist. Presbyterians descend from Scottish Calvinists. Many early Baptists were Calvinist. But in the 19th century, Protestantism moved toward the non-Calvinist belief that humans must consent to their own salvation — an optimistic, quintessentially American belief. In the United States today, one large denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is unapologetically Calvinist.

But in the last 30 years or so, Calvinists have gained prominence in other branches of Protestantism, and at churches that used to worry little about theology. In 1994, when Mark Dever interviewed at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church in Washington, the hiring committee didn’t even ask him about his theology.

“So I said, ‘Let me think about what you wouldn’t like about me, if you knew,’ ” Mr. Dever recalled. And he told them that he was a Calvinist. “And I had to explain to them what that meant. I didn’t want to move my wife and children here and lose the job.”

Mr. Dever, 53, said that when he took over in 1994, about 130 members attended on Sundays, and their average age was 70. Today, the church gets about 1,000 worshipers, with an average age of 30. And while Mr. Dever tends not to mention Calvin in his sermons, his educated audience, many of whom work in politics, knows, and likes, what it is hearing.

“I think it is apparent in his teaching,” said Sarah Rotman, 34, who works for the World Bank. “The real focus on Scripture, and that all the answers we seek in this life can be found in the word of God. In a lot of his preaching, he does really talk about our sinfulness and our need of the Savior.”

That focus on sinfulness differs from a lot of popular evangelicalism in recent years. It runs contrary to the “prosperity gospel” preachers, who imply that faith can make one rich. It sounds nothing like the feel-good affirmations of preachers and authors like Joel Osteen, who treat the Bible like a self-help book, or a guide to better business.

“What you’d be hearing in some megachurches is, ‘God wants you to be a good parent, and here are seven ways God can help you to be a good parent,’ ” said Collin Hansen, the author of “Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey With the New Calvinists.” “Or, ‘God wants you to have a good marriage, so here are three ways to do that.’ ” By contrast, Mr. Hansen said, those who attend Calvinist churches want the preacher to “tell them about Jesus.”

Some non-Calvinists say that the rise of Calvinism has been accomplished in part through sneaky methods. Roger E. Olson, a Baylor University professor and the author of “Against Calvinism,” is the Calvinists’ most outspoken critic.

“One of the concerns is that new graduates from certain Baptist seminaries have been infiltrating churches that are not Calvinist, and not telling the churches or search committees who are not Calvinist,” Professor Olson said. According to what he has heard, young preachers “wait several months and then begin to stock the church library with books” by Calvinists like John Piper and Mark Driscoll. They hold special classes on Calvinist topics, he said, and they staff the church with fellow Calvinists.

“Often the church ends up splitting, with the non-Calvinists starting their own church,” Professor Olson said.

At its annual meeting in June, the Southern Baptist Convention received a report from its special Calvinism Advisory Committee, which addressed charges both of anti-Calvinist prejudice within the denomination and of unfair dealing by Calvinists.

“We should expect all candidates for ministry positions in the local church to be fully candid and forthcoming about all matters of faith and doctrine,” the report read.

While many neo-Calvinists shy away from politics, they generally take conservative positions on Scripture and on social issues. Many don’t believe that women should be ministers or elders. But Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, said that Calvin’s influence was not limited to conservatives.

Liberal Christians, including some Congregationalists and liberal Presbyterians, may just take up other aspects of Calvin’s teachings, Dr. Jones said. She mentioned Calvin’s belief that “civic engagement is the main form of obedience to God.” She added that, unlike many of today’s conservatives, “Calvin did not read Scripture literally.” Often Calvin “is misquoting it, and he makes up Scripture passages that don’t exist.”

Brad Vermurlen, a Notre Dame graduate student writing a dissertation on the new Calvinists, said that the rise of Calvinism was real, but that the hoopla might level off.

“Ten years ago, everyone was talking about the ‘emergent church,’ ” Mr. Vermurlen said. “And five years ago, people were talking about the ‘missional church.’ And now ‘new Calvinism.’ I don’t want to say the new Calvinism is a fad, but I’m wondering if this is one of those things American evangelicals want to talk about for five years, and then they’ll go on living their lives and planting their churches. Or is this something we’ll see 10 or 20 years from now?”

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend new to ministry recently asked my advice on preaching…

Here are 3 quick pieces of advice:

Write 250 Words a Day 

Some invaluable advice I received in a creative writing class in college was that I should adopt the habit of writing at least 250 words a day. Really, it’s only two paragraphs. They need not be brilliant examples of writing. It doesn’t need to be the great American novel, a dissertation or moving sermon. It can be about anything under the sun.

The sheer habit of writing, however, will prime your creative pump (hence this blog) and make the writing of the sermon at week’s end much easier.

Be Creative 

The first caution about being creative is the caution above about your listeners’ BS radar. Being childish and trite is not the same thing as being creative.

The second caution about being creative is that technology is now omnipresent in our culture. Using PowerPoint and YouTube are not creative in their own right and they’re certainly no longer counter the status quo. This just makes the bar for creativity higher.

Use your imagination.

Variety

Tim Keller is a far more accomplished pastor and preacher than me so who am I to judge, but it amazes me that nearly every sermon he preaches- no matter the form of the text- has the same 3 Point Rational Exposition Form.

Scripture is replete with manifold forms of communication. Logical exposition is a surprisingly a small portion of the scriptural witness. So why is that variety not evidenced in our preaching?

If our sermon forms were any indication, someone new to the bible might suspect our scripture resembled something more like the Quran, filled with rational rules and precepts.

To preach biblically is to let the bible’s moods and methods lead us.

Preach narratively.

Preach poetically.

Preach parabolically.

Lament.

Unsettle.

Praise for Praise’s sake.

Challenge.

Draw a vision of God’s future.

 

Shudder – to tremble with a sudden convulsive movement, as from horror, fear, or cold. 

That moment when you want to find the nearest cave and just stay there awhile – or maybe longer….

counterfeit-gods-timothy-keller1Do you ever have those moments when realizations hit you like a brick and send a chill through your body?

Not a good kind of chill – a shudder.

That horror.  That fear.

That recognition that leaves you cold.

That moment when it feels like nothing will ever be ok again.

Oprah helped bring the watered down version into our vocabulary – the AHA moment.  But I’m talking about the shudder moment.

Isaiah talks about it:

 “The arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of man humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day, and the idols will totally disappear.  Men will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from dread of the LORD…In that day men will throw away to the rodents and bats their idols of silver and idols of gold, which they made to worship.  They will flee to caverns in the rocks and to the overhanging crags from dread of the LORD”

James talks about it:

“You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not recieve, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.  You adulterous people, don’t you know that a friendship with the world is hatred toward God?”

It is spiritual adultery when we worship anything or anyone other than God.  James has a way of putting things doesn’t he?

Too often I have felt that shudder to my very core when the Holy Spirit helps me uncover some hidden agenda, fear, pattern or habit in my life that is totally missing the Christian mark.  I mean way off!

Then the realization hits me about just how much time I have wasted or how many people I have hurt in the meantime.

The wreckage that needs to be dealt with as well as the sin.

I have told myself what I have wanted to hear too many times so I could keep safe in my little life.  So I wouldn’t have to go through the agony of the shudder moment that has to change everything for me.  Too many things that I have served keep me from being the woman that God created me to be.

The thing is, that once I feel it, name it, deal with it, and ask for forgiveness I must give it over to the cross.

It isn’t easy to give up the regret or shame that those moments can bring.

I fee like if I don’t carry it around for months or years then I am somehow diminishing the suffering that I must feel because of it.

Christ suffered for that sin as well.

If His forgiveness is not for me – then it isn’t for you – and I know it is.

 

 

Jesus’ Politics

Jason Micheli —  March 18, 2013 — Leave a comment

121101065950-red-blue-state-jesus-custom-1This weekend we continued our Counterfeit Gods sermon series by exploring how partisan politics can be an idol, taking away from our ultimate allegiance to Christ. Here’s a great post from Darrell Dow on that same theme:

American politics is religious in its fervor. American religion is political in its function.

No matter how tall the wall that our Constitution has built between the church and the state, you’ll find some people from every political persuasion who will invoke Christian thought as the basis of their convictions. Every agenda has its religious texts and scriptural narratives informed by biblical images. An embattled union is David to the corporate giant’s Goliath. Those seeking social change cast themselves in the role of prophet or Apostle by turns speaking uncomfortable truths to the powerful and spreading the gospel of equality and justice. Most of all, Jesus gets quoted by everybody.

Who doesn’t own Jesus in an election year? Jesus is a Democrat. Jesus is a Republican. Jesus would want more social programs for the poor. Jesus would strike abortion providers dead in their tracks. Jesus would outlaw assault rifles. Jesus would institute the death penalty. Jesus has a seat on every side of every issue. It’s a good thing he’s got divinity on his side because anyone else would likely crack under the strain.

During the last election cycle I even began noticing Vote for Jesus as a slogan on bumper stickers and signs. This campaign to elect the Lord is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that I’m pretty sure Christ doesn’t have a US birth certificate. I can only imagine what Donald Trump would have to say about that.

I’ll have to confess that I’ve never voted for Republican Jesus but I did admire him as I pictured the muscular man who favored free enterprise, led an ear-chopping posse of swordsmen, and taught the poor that the path to happiness was hard work as a cog in the capitalist machine. I imagined that someday he would lead troops into a bloody final battle against the forces of Communism, atheism, and pretty much anybody else that didn’t go to my church. This image of a conquering right-wing Christ was very satisfying stuff in my youth but I’m happy to say that my Jesus isn’t like that anymore and hasn’t been for many years.

Even though my Christ had grown kinder and gentler over the years, however, he was still pretty darn conservative so when I started a new project last month that I’m callingMy Obama Year, I realized that spending twelve months of listening, empathizing, and trying to understand those who live to my political left would mean understanding their Jesus as well. That takes a good deal of doing. Jesus is pretty personal.

The process of rediscovering Jesus comes with a warning: It’s good to be cautious when you start to reconstruct Christ. It would be easy to slip into the path of simply switching out Jesus the Iron-Jawed General for a Jesus that drinks free trade coffee, carries a union card (Carpenters Local 316, perhaps?), and has a Free Tibet sticker on the guitar case he carries to protests. Unfortunately, a liberal caricature of Christ is no more helpful than the extreme right-wing version because it robs us of the main focus of his teachings which were largely personal not political.

Jesus was not a general nor was he an activist. Not only did he never run for election, he never even voted in one. Other than some cutting words about the spiritual conditions of some of the Jewish leadership, his largest political statement was a martyrdom during which he didn’t even bother launching a defense at his own trial. As politics goes, that’s not exactly a great way to have a career.

Maybe Jesus isn’t really anything like the political images painted of him. Perhaps the time has come for all parties and political persuasions to stop claiming to have exclusive rights to Jesus and instead think about what he did teach us — lessons that are bigger than our issues or agendas. He taught outlandish love for our enemies. He taught unthinkable grace toward our neighbors. He told us that the kingdom of heaven is now here. It’s here! It’s here in publicans and in Pharisees; in prostitutes and in preachers; in Democrats, in Republicans, in you, and in me.

What would happen in our country if the kingdom were right now fully realized and grace and graciousness ruled our politics? What if the greatest commandment in our law was love? I can’t really imagine it — which I suppose just means that there is a lot of work still left to do for all of us.

In the meantime should we vote for Jesus? Why would anyone need to? I think that to do so would be as superfluous as it is insulting.

When you live in a kingdom there’s no vote need to vote for the King.

This weekend for our Counterfeit Gods sermon series we’re tackling the idol of politics. Sigh.  I can already imagine what my inbox will be like on Monday morning. 121101065950-red-blue-state-jesus-custom-1

As a pastor, I frequently hear from Christians:

‘I think Christianity is private, personal. Politics should be kept out of the Church.’

I certainly get the fatigue behind the question. Fatigue over our hyper partisan culture and how the Church has dirt all over its hands by participating and encouraging that culture.

And yet when someone makes a statement like that I often ask, in love:

‘Just what bible are you reading?

Because you’ve obviously never read the Old Testament prophets.

Or the Exodus story.

Or any of the Gospels.

Or the Book of James.

Or Revelation.’ 

Like Judaism before it, Christianity has always been a public faith. The first Christians were called an “ekklessia,” meaning they were ‘God’s called-out people.’ Christians, it was believed, lived their faith publicly with very public consequences. Questioners in the gospels asked Jesus about everything from adultery and divorce to poverty, taxes, war and patriotism. St. Paul, on the other hand, wrote most of his letters to churches to help new Christians with the difficulties that came with balancing their faith and their worldly commitments.

Christianity is not, and never has been,

simply an interior faith.

It is not limited to my own inner spirituality or my own personal relationship with God. Nor are the concerns of Christianity limited to the Church sanctuary. Christianity places expectations on its followers that follow them from worship to the church parking lot on Sunday morning and, from there, all through the week.

The way of Jesus offers a particular way for us to be in and view the world, and that the Christian tradition has a needful witness to help us make sense of our lives and the issues that confront us.

Claiming Jesus is Lord meant for the first Christians that Caesar was not. It was a big, bold confession that had implications on every part of their lives.

Even if we don’t like it, confessing the Lordship of Christ should still impact every square inch of our lives too.

But before we can figure out those implications, we need to learn what the first Christians didn’t have to learn; they had the benefit of a unity brought on by mutual suffering under the Empire.

In America, we are, for all intents and purposes, the Empire. In America, Christians first need to learn how to get along.

And listen.

Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor says:

People who are shouting at each other are constitutionally incapable of seeing the image of God in someone else.

 

Our culture is characterized by much shouting. Given the divisive nature of our contemporary culture, how we talk about politics, as Christians, is nearly as important as the conclusions that we draw.

 

121101065950-red-blue-state-jesus-custom-1

Yesterday afternoon, Dennis (my associate pastor for those of you outside the congregation) let me know he couldn’t preach this weekend after all.

So I’m up at the plate this weekend as we continue our Lenten sermon series on idolatry, Counterfeit Gods. And what absolute, crap, spit-ball of a topic do I get?

The idol of…

Politics and Political Partisanship.

Fun.

At least, you know, church people aren’t known to get their panties in a bunch over preachers mentioning politics.

The text for this weekend is the question put to Jesus about taxes. They crucify him right after he answers.

Let’s hope I fare better but I suppose if I’m faithful to the text, I shouldn’t expect to get treated any better than Jesus. 

Here’s a video with some bona fide Jesus truth from Tim Keller on how our poisonous partisan culture is a faith issue and how CIVILITY IS A CHRISTIAN VIRTUE.

If you think being right on an issue is more important than how you speak to or about someone who disagrees with you, then you’re wrong.

At least as it concerns your faith.

And which is the more important? Your faith or your issue?

Don’t believe me, check out Jesus’ brother:

The tongue is placed among Christians as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 

7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 

9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 

10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters. 

This ought not to be so.

– Book of James, chapter 3

Scroll ahead to 4:40 for the bit on Civility and Politics:

 

counterfeit-gods-timothy-keller1I feel a little bit like Esau – betrayed and with a score to settle.

I know she didn’t mean to do it, but my sister pulled a Jacob.

A very difficult family situation feels like a tragedy and a tragedy for me can become an idol.

I am in the middle of it right now, and I know how I need to act, but I don’t want to!

I want to act like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and stomp my feet and scream “I want it now daddy!  I want it now!”  

But I can’t.  I am a Christian.  That epic realization trumps it all.  It just does.

I have to do it; sooner rather than later, because it is impossible for me to live this way.   As Keller puts it, it is a bloodthirsty deity and hard to appease.  Unforgiveness is a vice-grip that changes how I see everything every day.   I’m still not there yet though.  I woke up with the vice grip around my heart.

She is my only sister.  There are hundreds of reasons and ways in which I can justify my anger and never forgive her.  The only one on the other side of the tally sheet is that I am called to forgive without her even asking; To forgive because I am forgiven.

I am naturally inclined to want justice instead – to make sure that it is fair before I can move to forgive.  Several years ago I recall hearing someone on television talking about how they had been able to forgive the drunk driver that killed their child.  All those around her and even I were shocked and amazed that she would even want to let alone find the path.  It seems like forgiveness on that scale is seen as weakness not strength from the Divine.

Then during my walk Max Lucado spoke to me this morning on the radio.  He reminded me

“relationships do not survive because the guilty are punished but because the innocent are merciful.” 

I’m not all high and mighty sitting up here on my throne of innocence, I’m still trying to figure my part out, but until I forgive and get past this, nothing else is possible.

I feel betrayed by her.  I feel like she destroyed a dream I have had for many, many years.  I believed that God was granting me one of the “desires or my heart.”  I believed that God was bringing the desire of my heart and his will for me together.

I remember when Dennis preached about that and how sweet it is when those two worlds collide.  By her actions she took it away from me.  I wanted it so much. 

Maybe that was the idol – the wanting?

I just know that I must forfeit this idol.

I know that I can do all things through Christ.  I know because God tells me and if it were not so, he would not have told me.  It is the Word of God.  I have faith that He will be there every step of the way with me as I work through this.  I know this because He has accompanied me on this journey before.

My Savior is not unfamiliar with betrayal.

  “Be kind and compassionate to one another. Forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32. 

If I do not, I dishonor Him and I can’t bear to do that again.

 

 

 

 

By the Book

Jason Micheli —  March 11, 2013 — 8 Comments

Here’s my sermon on ‘Forgiveness’ for our Lenten Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods. You can listen to the sermon in the ‘Listen’ widget on this page or download for free in the iTunes Library, under Tamed Cynic.

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This isn’t the sermon I thought I was going to preach when my week began.

I started out on Monday writing a sermon about the prophet Elisha and a leper named Namaan, but then, because of a decision I made weeks ago, I had an encounter this week that provoked a much different sermon.

If you read my blog, then you know that a few weeks ago I made a Lenten commitment that once or twice a week I would strap a clergy collar around my neck, which I usually only wear to weddings and graveside burials.

I made a commitment that I’d strap a collar on and go to some public space, like a coffee shop or pub or cafe, and just see what conversations came my way by exposing my faith and vocation in plain sight.

 

Since then I’ve worn it to Starbucks a couple of times.

Last week, I went to Barnes and Noble.

This past week I went to Whole Foods to eat lunch in the cafe and sketch what I had planned on being a very different sermon.

I sat down in a booth with my food and a few books about the prophet Elisha. And aside from the check-out guy asking me who I was going to vote for- for Pope- it was an uneventful day.

And I was about to call it a day, when a woman pushing a grocery cart crept up to my booth and said:

‘Um, excuse me Father….could I?’ 

 

     She gestured to the empty seat across from me.

 

‘Well, I’m not exactly a Fa______’ I started to say but she just looked confused.

 

‘Never mind’ I said. ‘Sit down.’ 

 

She looked to be somewhere in her 40’s. She had long, dark hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin that had started to blush red.

 

No sooner had she sat down than she started having second thoughts.

 

‘Maybe this is a mistake. I feel ridiculous and I just interrupted you. I just saw you over here and I haven’t been to church in years…’ 

 

She fussed with the zipper on her coat while she rambled, embarrassed.

 

     ‘It’s just….I’ve been carrying this around for years and I can’t put it down.’ 

 

‘Put what down?’ I asked.

 

‘Where do I start? You don’t even know me, which is probably why I’m sitting here in the first place.’ She laughed and wiped the corner of her eye.

 

‘Beginning at the beginning usually works’ I said.

 

‘Yeah,’ she said absent-minded, she was already rehearsing her story in her head.

 

And then she told it to me. She confessed.

 

About her husband and their marriage.

About his drinking, the years of it.

About his lies, the years of it.

About her making every effort to help him, to stick by him, to do whatever it

took to keep their marriage together.

She told me about how he’s sober now.

And then she told me about how now the addiction in their family is her anger and resentment over how she’ll never get back what she gave out, how she’ll never receive what she spent.

 

Then she bit her lip and paused- like she was mentally censoring a part of it.

 

And so I asked her: ‘Are you asking me if you’re supposed to forgive him?’ 

 

‘No, I know I’m supposed to forgive him’ she said. ‘My priest told me that years ago- that’s when I stopped going to church. I know I’m supposed to forgive.’ 

 

‘What’s your question then?’ I asked.

 

‘I’ve sacrificed enough. He’s the one who owes me. Why does forgiving him just make me feel like a victim all over again?’

 

     ‘Why can’t I just wipe this from my ledger….and move on?’ 

 

And when she said that, I knew I had to write a different sermon.

When Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness, when Peter asks Jesus if forgiving someone 7 times is sufficient, Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer. Peter’s a brown-noser, a butt-kisser. Peter wouldn’t have raised his hand and volunteered if he thought it was the wrong answer.

After all Moses had said an eye for an eye, do in turn what was done to you but no more. So 7 times must have struck Peter as a generous, Jesusy amount of forgiveness.

I mean, think about that. Imagine someone sins against you. Say, a church member gossips about you behind your back. I’m not suggesting anyone in this church would do that, just take it as an illustration.

Imagine someone gossips about you. And you confront them about it. 

     1. And they say: ‘I’m sorry.’ So you say to them: ‘I forgive you.’ 

     2. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     3. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     4. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     5. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     6. And then they do it again for sixth time. And you forgive them. 

 

     I mean…fool me once shame on you. Fool 2,3,4,5,6 times…how many times does it take until its shame on me?

 

     It’s got to stop somewhere, right? 

 

And Peter suggests drawing the line at 7 times.

7 is a good, biblical number and, whether we’re talking about gossip or anger or adultery, 7 is a whole lot of forgiveness.

So Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer; Peter must’ve expected a pat on the back, gold star from Jesus. But he doesn’t get one.

 

     Instead Jesus says: ‘You’re off by about 483.’ Not 7 times but 70 times 7. 

 

     490 times. And- it’s even worse than it sounds.

     490 was a Jewish way of expressing perfection. Infinity.

 

So Jesus is saying there is no limit to forgiveness, that forgiving someone is something we never get done with. It’s something that goes on forever.

That forgiveness is not a favor we offer 490 times but when we finally get to 491 we can stop.

     No, Jesus is saying that forgiveness is a way of life that never ends.

 

And as he likes to do, Jesus goes straight from answer to illustration and tells a story that starts with grace and ends with hell.

 

‘And oh, by the way,’ Jesus tacks on, ‘that’s exactly what God will do with you unless you forgive in your heart.’ 

 

On the surface that’s a really crappy story. 

     You must forgive or else. You must forgive or else your heavenly father will lock you in hell and throw away the key? You must forgive…out of fear? 

     That doesn’t sound like Jesus- at all. 

     So, there’s got to be more going on in this story than you can hear the first time through. 

     In fact, what we need is a couple more takes to notice what’s going on in Jesus’ parable. 

So what I need is a few volunteers…

The story revolves around 3 main characters: a King, a servant and a fellow servant.

     Take One: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

    So in the beginning, the king opens his ledger to settle accounts, and he finds a servant who owes him 10,000 talents.

The amount of the debt is key to the whole logic of Jesus’ story. In case you’re rusty on your biblical exchange rates:

1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages

6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent 

     This servant owes the king 10,000 talents. When you do the math and carry the one- that comes out to roughly 60 million days’ wages or 164 years and 3 months of labor. 

So when Jesus tells the story, Peter and the other disciples would’ve known instantly that this man owes a debt he could never possibly repay. It’s not just a large debt; its an un-repayable debt.

But no sooner is the man forgiven his debt and set free than he encounters a fellow servant who owes him, about 3 months wages. No small amount but small potatoes compared to the debt he owed the king.

So even though he’s been forgiven and set free he grabs the man, chokes him, demands what’s owed him and sends the man to prison, ignoring the very same plea he’d pled: ‘be patient with me…’

And when the king finds out he has failed to extend the same mercy he had received,  the King has him thrown in jail to be tortured until all his debt is repaid, to be tortured.

To be tortured for 10,000 talents worth of time. 60 million days.

     Take Two: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

     Here’s a question:

Why does the king cancel the debt?

Because of the servant’s plea? Because he promises to pay back everything he owes? 60 million days worth of wages?

He can’t ever pay that back.

So if the king forgives the servant because the servant promises to make it up to him, then the king is stupid.

The king just forgives him. Gratuitously. The king offers him grace.

And how does the servant respond?

Immediately he leaves the king and then turns to a fellow servant and demands from his peer what he has coming to him.

Somehow this servant has managed to receive the king’s forgiveness yet he’s remained completely unchanged by it. 

     He’s been forgiven something he could never repay. 

     He’s been spared a punishment that should have been his. 

    He’s been offered grace and somehow its not converted his heart or his character. 

     He’s still the same person he was before. 

     The king’s grace has not made him a person of grace. 

     Take Three: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

     Here’s another question: what happens to the debt? In the story?

The king examines his ledger and sees what’s owed him. But when he forgives the servant, what happens to the debt?

Where does that debt go? What’s the king do with his ledger?

Because the debt doesn’t just disappear. Someone has to pay the debt- that’s the way the world works, that’s the way accounting works.

And this servant can never pay what is owed. So who eats the debt?

The king.

     The king pays the debt.

     The king will have to suffer the cost of this un-payable debt because forgiveness always costs someone something.

But notice, it’s not just that the king pays the debt.

Because the king can’t forgive the servant without in some way tossing the ledger book aside once and for all.

Because there’s nothing this servant can ever do to bring his relationship with the king back in the black.

So when the king forgives the servant, the king also sacrifices the ledger.

Keeping tally of what’s been earned and what’s still owed goes by the wayside for good.

The whole system of settling accounts, of keeping score, of positive and negative, of + and -, of red and black, of credits and debits, of giving and receiving exactly what is owed- the king DIES to that way of life.

He gets rid of the ledger, so that a servant can have new life.

But notice.

After the king gets rid of his ledger, who’s still got one? 

     Who’s still keeping score? Who’s still keeping track of what people owe him? Who’s still recording what he’s earned? Who’s still tallying what he deserves from others but still hasn’t gotten?

     You see, the king throws his ledger away. Gone for good.

     But the servant clings to his ledger. 

     And he takes his ledger with him, willingly, all the way to hell. 

     In other words, Jesus says, if you insist on treating other people by the book then God will give you exactly what you want. And treat you by the book. 

‘Why can’t I just wipe the ledger clean and move on? Why does forgiving him make me feel like a victim all over again?’ the woman at WF asked me.

I sipped the last of my coffee.

And I said: ‘That’s kinda the way it’s supposed to feel.’ 

I could tell from her face she didn’t follow.

So I tried to explain:

‘The way we forgive is just a small-scale version of how God forgives. There’s no way to reconciliation that doesn’t first go through pain and suffering. Jesus is the pattern. Forgiveness means you bear the cost instead of making the other person pay what they owe you.’

‘That’s a sucky answer’ she said.

‘Sure it sucks’ I said. ‘It sucked for Jesus too, remember.’ 

‘Do you talk like this in church?’ she asked. ‘No, never.’ 

‘Look, the debt your husband owes you is real, but forgiveness means you absorb that debt. And, yes, it’s painful and, sure, it’s hard, but that’s the only way to resurrection.’ 

‘Like I said,’ she said, ‘it’d be a lot better if I could just wipe the ledger clean and move on.’ 

     ‘Yeah, but if you wipe that part of it clean it won’t be long before some other part of it shows red. It’s not about wiping the ledger clean. It’s about getting rid of the ledger altogether.’ 

 

Pay Attention:

No more pretending. That woman at Whole Foods, and that servant in the story, they’re not the only ones clinging to their ledger.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

Some of you carry around a ledger filled with lists of names:

Names of people who’ve hurt you.

Names of people who’ve taken something from you.

Names of people who’ve wronged you.

People who’ve cheated you or cheated on you.

Who’ve lied to you or who’ve lied about you.

People who refuse to listen to you, or to understand you, or to accept you.

People who’ve betrayed you, who’ve rubbed you the wrong the way, or who’ve just let you down one too many times.

And in many of your ledgers, you have a whole other list of names, people that no matter what they do, there’s nothing they can do to change their name from the red to the black in your book.

Some of you cling to ledgers filled with balance sheets, keeping score of exactly how much you’ve done for the people in your life compared to how little they’ve done for you.

Some of you cling to marriage ledgers, tallying the precise daily cash flow of what each person brings to the marriage, which person is costing the marriage more and which person is sacrificing more, working more, contributing more. To the marriage.

And some of you cling to ledgers that look more like a list of accomplishments:

How much you’ve done for others.

How much you’ve given to your church.

How much you attend worship.

All the reasons why you think, assume, God should love you.

While others of you can’t let of go.

Can’t let go of ledgers that list all the sinful things you’ve ever done. All the things you’re ashamed of. All the things you wish you could change about yourself. All the things you wish you could take back.

Ledgers filled with all the reasons why you’re secretly convinced God can never love you.

This sanctuary should not be a place where we lie: there are as many ledgers in this room as there are people.

And, hell, I have my own.

But Jesus wants us to know that we’ve got to put them down. 

     To get rid of them. Toss them aside. Die to that whole way of living. 

     Because clinging to this (the ledger) makes an idol out of that (the cross). Because if you’re still holding on to this, that’s just a symbol from a story that happened once upon a time to someone else. 

I mean, let’s be honest. Some of you have gone to church your whole lives and you’re no different than you were before. The grace of the King has not made you a grace-filled person.

And it’s because you’re still holding on to this.

     When it comes to you, you want the King to throw the book away. But when it comes to everyone else in your life, you insist on going by the book.

But clinging to this, going through your life going by the book, needing to keep score, needing to tally and balance the accounts, it makes that (the cross) an idol. 

      It makes it nothing more than an object- because you’re worshipping the object and not its meaning and power. 

Because the good news of the cross is that you’re more sinful than you’ll ever admit but you’re more loved than you could ever imagine.

The good news of the cross is that there is nothing, nothing, nothing, you can do to earn God’s love.

And there’s nothing you can do to lose it.

God doesn’t keep score. God doesn’t go by the book.

Because the King has tossed his ledger in the trash.

And despite the cost, he’s paid every debt. Every debt. And that includes, by the way, the debts that everyone in your life owe to you.

     So put the ledger down. Put it down. Get rid of it. Die to it.

And instead tit-for-tat, instead of quid pro quo, instead 1 for 1, you do this and I’ll do that, eye for an eye, try 70 x 7.

Show mercy.

Every time.

Just as the King has shown mercy to you.

 

I would rather die than go back to being the person that I was.

I taught my children to lie.

Of course I told them to tell the truth, but I taught them how to lie.

I had to.

I was protecting my way of life by lying to myself and everyone around me.

Keller says that money (and I submit a whole host of other idols) can be a spiritual addiction and like all addictions they hide their true proportions from their victims.  They do what they have to do to feed and perpetuate the addiction.

The heart always wants to justify itself

My precious paradigm cannot be intruded upon when I am living for something other than my God.

When I am not following the Holy Spirit, I tell myself what I have to in order to maintain my way of life.  Self -deception is key if I am to continue to stay comfortable doing what I’m doing.   And, let’s face it, everyone likes to be able to go to sleep at night.

Keller says we look to our idols for significance and security and because we HAVE to have them, we do what we have to do to protect our head from really seeing the desires of our heart – we deceive ourselves.  

That is why I can continue to go to church and bible study week after week, year after year and still be in the same spiritual pits and ruts.

The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things and expect different results.

 If I am tired of the same spiritual gerbil wheel, I need to jump off and do something different…”this time, I will praise the LORD.“

This time I will put my trust in God.  Find my honor in God.  Find mercy at His feet.  Everything short of that will leave me bankrupt once again.  This time…..

If Leah had continued to resist the simple act of letting go and praising God, still praying to God for answers to the wrong questions, she would never have had the beautiful breakthrough that allowed her heart to be changed – that allowed her to love God and be loved by him.  She could finally praise God.  Her circumstance hadn’t changed – her husband still didn’t love her.  She was still the same rejected and unloved woman she had always been.  But she finally broke the cycle.

“Anyone who listens to the word, but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in the mirror and after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it.  He will be blessed in what he does. James 1:23-24

This time I have to tell the truth to protect my way of life, my life with Christ.

I have to be responsible for my spiritual growth.  I have to want to be the person that God created me to be badly enough that I am willing to look at those spiritual worms inside me and call them what they are.

Lies.

I would rather die than go back to being who I was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I waited patiently for Jason to post his last sermon – the one with the glasses of water.  I immediately sent it to my son and his fiancé who are recently engaged.  While their relationship is amazing and beautiful and their commitment solid, I want to make sure they have the Great Bridegroom right in there with them.

Not unlike many of us, as they begin to plan the wedding, they start with the easy stuff.  Choosing flowers and a menu is so much more pleasant than dealing with the expectations and questions of where and by whom they should be married.

It seems they are both bringing some pretty complicated religious baggage and like many of us don’t fit neatly into a denominational box.

I was moved to tears by an email that I received from him recently asking me how I felt and if I had any advice about finding someone to marry them.  (Most priests and many ministers won’t marry couples unless they go through some sort of pre-marital counseling process, which makes complete sense to me.)

But, with all the demands of life, school, work and family, they are just as comfortable going to a Justice of the Peace.

Wow….where do I start on that one?  

You see he grew up as a Methodist….kind of….with a father who is Catholic and a mother who grew up Mormon.  I say kind of because it wasn’t until he was older that I decided that making the effort to go to church was worth it.  That helping him learn about a loving and merciful God might be important.  (The consequences of which is an entirely different post).  By then I had to compete with hockey practice, all sports, girls and any number of things I already had working against me in the get to church department.

I walk a fine line here not wanting him to regret asking. I want to look him in the eye and beg him to bring in Jesus NOW in any and every way possible. He is your Hope. He will hold you together as a couple and as a man.

If I tell him less than that I dishonor Christ.

I have to give him an answer that has some meat.

The Answerer.

None of us need one more thing in our lives to let us down, to disappoint.  If we come to Christ with less than all of our hearts, we will get less of Him.

And less just isn’t enough.

Less will always bring us to our knees.

I love it anytime Jesus offered truth so simply.

“If it were not so I would have told you”

“I tell you the truth”

As Keller put it so beautifully, “His are the only arms that will give you all your heart desires”.

Not your beautiful, wise and loving girl.

She will have her bridegroom Christ as well!

I know his beloved as a wise woman already:  She listens to her mother.

 

We’re continuing our Lenten Sermon Series, Counterfeit Gods, this weekend. Here’s another reflection from Julie Pfister on Tim Keller’s book by the same title.counterfeit-gods-timothy-keller

I’d like to pick up from where I left off last time, but unfortunately, until my family unsubscribes to Jason’s blog, I need to “cool it a bit”

Pick an idol – any idol.  That’s the way it seems to me sometimes.  Trying to exorcise all these false idols from my life can be difficult, but when we (and I mean I) are trying to protect a long held paradigm and comfortable way of life, identifying false idols and calling them what they really are can be the real tough part.

I remember being in a group study for The Hole in the Gospel and trying to find ways to live with myself after realizations that I am even more self-centered, self-absorbed and spoiled than I had thought.  I was seeking advice and honestly struggling with the concept that I could learn about the thousands that die every day from basic hunger as I lament the 15 pounds that I have gained. “How can I learn these things, without being CHANGED?”  I poured out to the group after a long sleepless night.  “Without needing to do more than check a box and donating a few dollars or serving at ROCK?”

“It was great” somebody offered in response, “the other day I got an email that the shelves were empty at UCM, so I cleaned out my pantry and took some food down – it  made me feel really good to do that.”

I asked “that’s great, but what if we need to do more than check that box and do something, that while responsive and generous, checks the box and makes us feel better?”  (I should have added a smiley face to the end of my question)

Somebody never came back to the group again.  I suppose I had offended her by diminishing what she had done, which was a generous act.  However, it was not my intention to diminish her.   I was deeply struggling with a concept that grips many of us in our comfortable lives.

How do we give enough money or time to others without upsetting that balance that we all like to think is more important than spending ourselves for Christ?

I want to be “exhausted for Christ” when I die on the one hand, but on the other hand, I want to just the food out of the pantry that we haven’t used and maybe throw in few other choice items.

People are so kind and effusive with their praise and thanks.  But, frankly, it makes me very uncomfortable.  I know myself well enough to know that it is only by the Grace of God and for His glory that I have time or energy for anything that I do.  Too often I have to fight the lazy bum I can be.

I am prone to wanna hang out on my porch and watch Netflix on my laptop and drink coffee and eat jalapeno chips all day….

I am prone to times of self-pity and self-doubt and subject to shame and regret at the time and opportunities I have squandered.

I am.

“Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.

Prone to leave the God I love

Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above”

 

counterfeit-gods-timothy-kellerWe’re beginning our Lenten sermon series this weekend on Counterfeit Gods. It’s a series on idolatry and, by extension, justification. Two topics that have me thinking about this article I read about Peter Rose getting erased Marty McFly-like from Topps Baseball Cards.

There are some things people will never agree on: Stones vs Beatles, Cool Bed Pillow vs Warm Bed Pillow and whether spending a month with Jar-Jar Binks would be worse than a month suffering with the Clap.

Add to this list of imponderables the question of whether or not Pete Rose (and I suppose all the rest from the Steroid Era) should be in the Hall of Fame. Being from Ohio originally, I know full well this question has its impassioned advocates on both sides. The arguments, both pro and con, however almost always revolve exclusively around baseball. The integrity of the game. In the case of steroids, there’s the point about the ‘purity’ (a revealing word) of a sport to which statistics are everything. And then there’s the very real concern that the cheaters’ records minimized the accomplishments that were won the hard way- as far as we know.

I don’t really care one way or the other about Pete Rose et al.

What interests me is how differently the Hall of Fame treats former players

when compared to how the Church treats its saints.

St Augustine was wantonly promiscuous and all but abandoned his loved ones- save his mommy- when he converted to Christianity and became a priest.

John Wesley was a terrible husband.

Jean Calvin had a man burnt at the stake.

Paul stood by and watched a man get stoned. And said nothing.

Mother Theresa had long periods of doubt and despair in her lifetime. Pope Benedict was a Hitler Youth.

And, of course, let’s not forget the 12 Disciples, one of whom betrayed Jesus for money and 11 of whom betrayed him just to save their own skin.

What’s remarkable when compared alongside the Hall of Fame is how the Church has never shied away from the sullied, silly or shadow sides of its saints.

Even the most honored saints are still sinners, and they can be because it’s not their saintliness that justifies their inclusion in God’s Church. It’s God. Only an institution that participates in the Gospel story and thus knows our justification comes not from our own accomplishments but from Christ’s gracious love can openly acknowledge both the warts and the wisdom of its people.

The Hall of Fame, on the other hand, participates in a much different story. The American story. Whereas the Church doesn’t need to blush that Peter denied Christ or that Augustine couldn’t keep it in his cloak, baseball (and America) often feel the need to pretend our heroes are without flaw. Because, after all, in America one’s accomplishments really are what we think justifies us.

Back to Pete Rose, Barry Bonds and the rest. I get the baseball arguments for their exclusion. But on Gospel grounds, I say let them in, rap sheet and all. Celebrate the positive. Don’t hide from the dark side of their stories.

A Hall of Fame that pretends the greatest hitter of all time (Pete Rose) and the greatest player of all time (Barry Bonds) never existed is a little like a Church that pretends Peter and Judas and Augustine (and, let’s be honest, you and me) never existed.

counterfeit-gods-timothy-kellerThis weekend we begin our Lenten sermon series, Counterfeit Gods. We’ll be talking all through Lent about the idols in our lives. No, idols aren’t inanimate totems (aka: Golden Calfs) that we stupidly think are divinities. Idolatry is as real (maybe more?) as it was in the ancient world.

An idol is anything in our life to which we place ultimate value, anything in life from which we derive our chief happiness and meaning, anything in life on which we depend for our life’s meaning and purpose.

Based on that definition alone, you can see that, chances are, you’re not off the hook.

What’s more, idolatry is hardly something other, unbelieving people do. Christians are just as guilty as anyone else of turning their money, family, children, love, spouse, career, or political party into an ultimate value, giving it the place that should be reserved for God alone- a mistake which frequently ends up corroding our money, family, children, love, spouse, career or politics.

Another thing should be on the list of idols for Christians: religion. 

Too often Christians (me: guilty) worship their religious categories instead of God.

Too often Christians derive their sense of worth and identity not from God but from our moral purity.

But, as Sarah Bessey points out in the post I discovered below, if nothing can separate us from God because of Jesus Christ then it’s also true that nothing can justify us before God but Jesus Christ.

Here’s her thoughts.

I was nineteen years old and crazy in love with Jesus when that preacher told an auditorium I was “damaged goods” because of my sexual past. He was making every effort to encourage this crowd of young adults to “stay pure for marriage.” He was passionate, yes, well-intentioned, and he was a good speaker, very convincing indeed.

And he stood up there and shamed me, over and over and over again.

Oh, he didn’t call me up to the front and name me. But he stood up there and talked about me with such disgust, like I couldn’t be in that real-life crowd of young people worshipping in that church. I felt spotlighted and singled out amongst the holy, surely my red face announced my guilt to every one.

He passed around a cup of water and asked us all to spit into it. Some boys horked and honked their worst into that cup while everyone laughed. Then he held up that cup of cloudy saliva from the crowd and asked, “Who wants to drink this?!”

And every one in the crowd made barfing noises, no way, gross!

“This is what you are like if you have sex before marriage,” he said seriously, “you are asking your future husband or wife to drink this cup.”

Over the years the messages melded together into the common refrain: “Sarah, your virginity was a gift and you gave it away. You threw away your virtue for a moment of pleasure. You have twisted God’s ideal of sex and love and marriage. You will never be free of your former partners, the boys of your past will haunt your marriage like soul-ties. Your virginity belonged to your future husband. You stole from him. If – if! – you ever get married, you’ll have tremendous baggage to overcome in your marriage, you’ve ruined everything. No one honourable or godly wants to marry you. You are damaged goods, Sarah.”

If true love waits, I heard, then I have been disqualified from true love.

In the face of our sexually-dysfunctional culture, the Church longs to stand as an outpost of God’s ways of love and marriage, purity and wholeness.

And yet we twist that until we treat someone like me – and, according to this research, 80% of you are like me –  as if our value and worth was tied up in our virginity.

We, the majority non-virgins in the myopic purity conversations,  feel like the dirty little secret, the not-as-goods, the easily judged example.  In this clouded swirl of shame, our sexual choices are the barometer of our righteousness and worth. We can’t let any one know, so we keep it quiet, lest any one discover we were not virgins on some mythic wedding night. We don’t want to be the object of disgust or pity or gossip or judgement. And in the silence, our shame – and the lies of the enemy – grow.

 

And so here, now, I’ll stand up and say it, the way I wish someone had said it to me fifteen years ago when I was sitting in that packed auditorium with my heart racing, wrists aching, eyes stinging, drowning and silenced by the imposition of shame masquerading as ashes of repentance:

“So, you had sex before you were married.

It’s okay.

Really. It’s okay.

There is no shame in Christ’s love. Let him without sin cast the first stone. You are more than your virginity – or lack thereof – and more than your sexual past.

Your marriage is not doomed because you said yes to the boys you loved as a young woman. Your husband won’t hold it against you, he’s not that weak and ego-driven, choose a man marked by grace.

It’s likely you would make different choices, if you knew then what you know now, but, darling, don’t make it more than it is, and don’t make it less than it is. Let it be true, and don’t let anyone silence you or the redeeming work of Christ in your life out of shame.

Now, in Christ, you’re clear, like Canadian mountain water, rushing and alive, quenching and bracing, in your wholeness.

Virginity isn’t a guarantee of healthy sexuality or marriage. You don’t have to consign your sexuality to the box marked “Wrong.” Your very normal and healthy desires aren’t a switch to be flipped. Morality tales and false identities aren’t the stuff of a real marriage. Purity isn’t judged by outward appearances and technicalities. The sheep and the goats are not divided on the basis of their virginity. (Besides, this focus is weird and over-realized, it’s the flip side of the culture’s coin which values women only for their sexuality. It’s also damaging, not only for you, but for the virgins in the room, too. Really, there’s a lot of baggage from this whole purity movement heading out into the world.)

For I am convinced, right along with the Apostle Paul, that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any other power, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.* Not even “neither virginity nor promiscuity” and all points between can separate you from this love. You are loved – without condition – beyond your wildest dreams already.

I would say: Sarah, your worth isn’t determined by your virginity. What a lie.

No matter what that preacher said that day, no matter how many purity balls are thrown with sparkling upper-middle-class extravagance, no matter the purity rings and the purity pledges, no matter the judgemental Gospel-negating rhetoric used with the best of intentions, no matter the “how close is too close?” serious conversations of boundary-marking young Christians, no matter the circumstances of your story, you are not disqualified from life or from joy or from marriage or from your calling or from a healthy and wonderful lifetime of sex because you had – and, heaven forbid, enjoyed – sex before you were married.

Darling, young one burning with shame and hiding in the silence, listen now: Don’t believe that lie. You never were, you never will be, damaged goods.”

 

It’s Ash Wednesday, the day the Lenten season begins. Lent is a time when we imitate Jesus’ own time of testing in the wilderness by confronting the sin and idols in our own lives.

We will observe Lent this year by preaching on the themes in Tim Keller‘s book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. Some of you have insinuated my blog could use  a ladies’ touch. Well, here to prove I’m responsive and always a good listener, to reflect on the book, I’ve asked Julie Pfister, one of the most authentic Christians I know, to blog her way through the book.


counterfeit-gods-timothy-kellerHere’s her first entry:

I have had them myself; stickers on my shiny new SUV (not new or shiny anymore) showing that my family was on its way.  A few of the right schools, waiting and hoping for that empty spot on the back window to have just the right University stickered to it showing the world just how smart and perfect the little family that I had made was.

Like most of us, I didn’t realize it as it was happening.  Pride, like any other idol can be insidious, and so difficult to spot.  But my children, my seemingly perfect little family was on its way.   I wanted room in my car to carry around the whole hockey team.  I wanted my kids to want to have their friends come to my home where I could serve up the milk and cookies.

They did for a while.   Then, things started to awry.  As Keller put it, its not that I loved my children too much, I just didn’t have any room left in my heart or time in my schedule (or theirs) for God.  I wanted my children to be happy, successful, loving and to love me!  Perhaps it is partly because of the culture I grew up in that the desire for the perfect little family was so important.  Having happy, successful, smart, athletic, caring, loving children would validate me as a person – especially since I had quit my job and “sacrificed” (oh please) my career to raise my kids.

Like any false idol, it didn’t take long for the cracks in my perfect little life to really start to show.   My children and family are a wonderful gift and precious blessing to me, but I learned a long time ago, what Keller reminded us, that until or unless we stop trying to map out perfect little lives for our children, and trust God to be their God in the inevitably bumpy and even tragic path that HE has for them, we will be brought to our knees.

Do we pray that they will be Humble, shunning the world and the trappings of success and searching for God? How do we view others children who go off the chosen accepted cultural track…high school, college, graduate degree, career, family, Do we think that there is something wrong if our children “choose” a different path?  Are we not quick to give a qualifying response when we tell someone that our son or daughter is not in college?  How honest can we be with each other when people ask how we are?  How is Sally….Can we really just honestly pray that they will know God?  Will we or they be ok if we pray that God will use them, that they will seek God and God will seek them…..if that means that they go against the cultural norms? How can we as parents hope that God will break our children’s hearts so they can be desperate for HIM.  Do we trust God enough to want that sort of brokenness for them?  What if we pray that our children KNOW God?  Do we trust him with the pieces of their broken hearts?  Do we trust Him to ????  It is so counter-intuitive for me as a mother for my children to want to feel the emptiness and desperation that I have felt.  Do I want my children in the pit of despair?

That same pit that Christ reached down and pulled me out of and set my feet on firm ground and put a new song in my heart!   I loved teaching at the Day School.  With each new class I always felt a twinge of envy along with the joy of meeting the bright and shiny precious, babies and the hopeful, loving parents that brought them. I wondered how they might feel if their child called them something horrible and told them they hated them.

I hoped and prayed that their child would never get beaten to within an inch of his life or disappear for days and weeks at a time.  I wanted to go all Isaiah on them and belt out….Get on your knees NOW and study and learn all that you can….not from Dr. Spock but from the Author of their Life….the Ultimate Educator….so that you are as ready and STEEPED in God and His Word that “when the rest of life unravels”  He and his Word will be such a part of your fabric that you will not.

Some people still tell me, hoping to not offend, that I used to remind them of Barbie….Unless I missed the happily broken, God fearing, Grace loving, sinner Barbie, there is no resemblance.