A Strange Ride: LGBTQ+ Pride Month and Redemption

Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) wrote a variety of poems and humorous fables. Here I share one with you, called “A Strange Ride.”[1]

A man was riding home on his donkey. He had his son run along beside. A traveler came by and said, “It is not right, sir, that you ride and have your son run. You are stronger than he is.” So, the father dismounted and let his son ride. Another traveler came and said, “Young fellow, it is not right that you ride and let your father go by foot. You have younger legs.” So, both mounted together and rode for a while. A third traveler came and said, “What sort of nonsense is this! Two blokes sitting on one weak animal? Someone oughta’ take a stick and chase the two of ya’ off the poor beast.” So, both climbed off the donkey and the three walked abreast along the road, with the donkey in the middle. A fourth traveler came and said, “You are three curious companions. Isn’t it sufficient for two to go on foot? Doesn’t the trip go easier when one of you rides?” So, the father tied the donkey’s front legs together and the son tied his back legs together. Then they ran a strong pole through and carried the donkey on their shoulders.

This is how far things can go if you try to please everybody.

Humorous, yes? And yet also touching a central nerve in life: you can’t please everybody. Trying to please everyone ends up doing ridiculous things that don’t necessarily help anyone involved. Or, read a little differently, the parable illustrates that not everyone can be right.

This message is especially relevant for our culture right now where we have decided that everyone gets to be right.

June is—if you’ve missed it—considered LGBTQ+ Pride month. As a culture, trying to follow everybody’s different demands leads to inconsistent nonsense winning the day. In the recent past we have seen the increasing complexity and oddity of living in a culture where sex and gender are viewed as endlessly plastic, subject only to the whims of the sovereign self.

Here are just two areas of tragic irony in the move to “carry the donkey” instead of ride it like usual.

When a man is a “woman” is a “something”

As usual in American culture, sports have led the way in grabbing headlines.

Recently, one headline brought to a head something which pundits have long been talking about. A former-male now transgendered swimmer—who had competed for 3 years in collegiate swimming as a male—started breaking women’s swimming records in collegiate swimming, even winning the 500-meter freestyle at nationals. Naturally, this athlete is competing against biological females

The athlete in question, Lia Thomas, has said this about their relationship to swimming:

“(Swimming) is a huge part of my life and who I am. I’ve been a swimmer since I was 5 years old,” Thomas said. “The process of coming out as being trans and continuing to swim was a lot of uncertainty and unknown around an area that’s usually really solid. Realizing I was trans threw that into question. Was I going to keep swimming? What did that look like?

“Being trans has not affected my ability to do this sport and being able to continue is very rewarding.”

I have no doubt that personally wrestling with issues of uncertainty about sex/gender is immensely complicated. That being said, consider how Lia Thomas frames the issue as one of personal identity and personal reward: I am someone who likes to swim (competitively at college) and so I should be able to keep doing that because that is my identity; the rest of the world needs to make space for me to do this as trans, because that is my identity. While this is picking one line from one news article, it is telling that there is no wrestling with the question of whether this former man turned woman competing against women is a fair way to treat the biological women whose identity has also centered on competitive swimming, but who don’t have the advantages of having a biological male body.[2]

Women’s sports has turned out to be a galvanizing issue. Having biological males participating in women’s sports kind of goes against the point of women’s sports to begin with. International swimming has banned people like Lia Thomas from competing in international events. We’ll see how long that common-sense approach holds up.

The prominence of “pregnant people”

On a related front, if you listen to political debates and talking points, you may have caught something recently. National politicians have largely stopped talking about “pregnant women.” They talk about “pregnant people” instead. This goes hand in hand with the highly publicized confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson where she pleaded unable to answer the question, “What is a woman?” As has been pointed out, this inability to define “woman” has not stopped her from using the word in her legal rulings, leading one to wonder what exactly she is ruling about. And the necessity of ruling about cases of sexual discrimination raises problems with this lack of certainty of what exactly makes a woman a woman, but I digress.

Back to “pregnant people.” A simple biological fact is that only human females can become pregnant. Until scientists develop artificial wombs, this will continue to be true. That is a bridge we will probably have to cross at some point, but not yet. In the meantime, consider this statement from Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, about why we should talk about “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women”:

First of all, if we’re talking about “pregnant people,” that language says to people—to transgender men and to nonbinary people—“we see you.” It should do a fair amount of work to help address discrimination.

The question which emerges in my mind is this: why should we efface the identity of the vast majority of “pregnant people” (cough, cough, “pregnant women”) in an effort to assuage the difficult feelings of a minute minority of biological women who have decided—for whatever array of personal reasons—to live as a man yet keep their uterus and female hormones largely intact?

Again, I don’t in anyway want to minimize the personal difficulties of individuals who are struggling with their sex/gender identity. I want us to learn how to be compassionate in helping people as best as able. But I question the wisdom of trying to reshape the experience and labels—the identities, really—of the majority (the vast majority, at that) of people to help a few people whose experience is biologically aberrant. One wonders, why should we efface the identity of most women in order to give a few people a sense that their identity as a “pregnant-former-woman-now-living-as-a-man-but-not-really-because-men-can’t-get-pregnant” is right?

The category of redemption

These are just two of many points where the advancing LGBTQ+ agenda is creating a strange situation in our culture—the travelers are carrying the donkey, as it were. In insisting that each individual’s felt identity is sacrosanct (so long as that identity is LGBTQ+), we have created a situation where the majority must be effaced to protect the fragile feelings of the minority.

As Christians, we have something to offer to this strange situation. Namely, an important concept lacking in our culture’s vocabulary and view of self: redemption. Redemption insists two things at the same time: (1) each person is broken and (2) each person is redeemable. When the LGBTQ+ movement declares certain identities as inherently right, they have removed the need for redemption. In fact, they find the idea that LGBTQ+ people need redemption (like anybody else) as offensive.

But one of the beautiful advantages of redemption is it helps us hold together the ability to be loving to other people who are different from us (since we need redemption to) and to insist that not everything is right, good, and desirable. Rather than trying to please everyone and ending up in chaos, redemption insists that we all have aspects of our identities which need to be redeemed by God.

Insisting on LGBTQ+ identities as the standard for the good life leads a culture along the strange ride of the opening parable. Something wrong can be found with every version of the ride. Insisting on redemption as the baseline for human identity and society allows space for people to be different while always insisting that each one of our identities needs some amount of overhaul.

And God is able and willing to redeem any identity through Jesus.

[1] This is a mix between a personal translation of the original German and a bit of retelling on my part.

[2] And lest any consider this point sexist, I merely note that at every level of advanced sports with athletes of comparative skill and experience, the issues is with men going to compete in women’s sports, not vice-versa. There are very few sports where female athletes of comparable level can competitively participate against male athletes in a consistent manner.

Needing something bigger

In a recent piece in Christianity Today, Russell Moore took up the topic of “tribalization” in the culture and the church.[1] From politics to economics to religion to entertainment, there are no shortages of tribes in which we are sorted and voluntarily sort ourselves. The reasons behind this are legion, ranging from natural human tendencies to the micro-advertising policies of giant tech companies which allow us to live in ideological bubbles. Echo-chambers, after all, do not produce novel sounds.

This is no doubt a multi-faceted problem and a great difficulty of our times—how do you live together yet completely separate lives and worlds and sets of “facts”? Within the church, unfortunately, much is the same. The racial activism and then the Covid pandemic have highlighted in graphic terms how deeply divided churches are across the nation. Many movements forged around shared theological consensus have found group identity splinter into tribes over political and social issues. And what church hasn’t had its woes around the existential question of the last two years: “to mask or not to mask”?

Moore touches on an important part of the difficulties when he writes:

“Maybe the reason we as Christians find our loyalties in tribal factions and ideologies is because we’ve lost that sense of worshipful awe before a God who is not a set of doctrines or a motivation for institutional survival or a national deity or a political mascot. Maybe our clamoring for those sorts of hive minds is because we’ve become bored—unsurprised by joy, un-amazed by grace.”

There is certainly something to ponder here. If our eyes are enamored by smaller deities, then the bigger God Who Is will no longer command our attention and our loyalty. Perhaps it is easier to subscribe to various versions of the “hive mind” and find our meaning and purpose and hope in that then it is to sit before an awesome and holy God in recognition that he is both terrible and compelling, heart-destroying and love-giving.

[1] Russell Moore, “Tribalism’s Awful Antidote: We’re Made to Have a Herd. Made to Transcend It, Too,” Christianity Today, June 2022.

Searching for…something

box robot yearning for true love

We’re searching for something else,

searching for something more,

we’re searching for something else,

what it is we’re not really sure,

but certainly something more.

Every now and again, a song hits a nerve. It seems to capture in a concise way the mood of a movement, or a group, or a generation. The song “Igendwas” by Yvonne Catterfeld hits a sweet spot in describing this cultural moment (at least for my generation). Yes, the title is funny; that’s because the song is in German. Here is a general-purpose English translation that is good enough to see what it is about (it’s a pretty song, even if you don’t understand German).

Above I have translated the chorus into poetic English. The chorus captures clearly the indecisive yearning which runs throughout the song. A yearning for something or someone that rises beyond the trivial, the temporary, and the cliches of modern life. Catterfeld muses on how we are able to explain the position of the earth, make monuments, take pictures, yet it all fades away. Our pictures don’t give us memory; our monuments don’t make us last; we can explain the rotation of the earth but in our pursuit of explaining ourselves we just keep trashing the world around us. It turns out, doing things and making stuff doesn’t assuage the yearning in our hearts. There must be something more.

In the second verse (sung by another German artist, Bengio), the song moves into reflections of endless indeterminacy. He sings of our longing to find someone who is real, solid, lasting, and who shows us who we are. But even if we found someone who might be able to do that, we can’t stay and learn because staying and learning means we could miss out on something else happening somewhere else. There is always a something else and always a somewhere else and the endless chasing for something leaves us endlessly spinning, finding nothing. Always more and different with the hope that the novel will turn out not just to be novel but categorically different. That in the next novel thing we will actually find the thing which explains ourselves to us. We are dedicated to getting somewhere, finding something, achieving something, but no one knows what that is and no one has the answer to guide us.

A song of our hearts

This song is a song of the human heart. We know, each one of us, that there is something more than what we have. That we were intended for greater than, deeper than, higher than. But in each ascent to the heavens, we find that the beeswax which holds our wings together can’t lift us high enough, and we plunge again into the seas below. As the Christian band The Gray Havens puts it in their song “High Enough:”

'Cause we fly, to the mountain top 
We climb, to the skies above 
We sail, to the stars and up 
But we can't get high, high enough

All around us—and, if we are honest, far too often inside of us—is a world full of people looking to find something. Something else. Something that lasts. Something that shows we are right. Something that shows we have reached as high as there is to reach. Something that shows we have become God.

There is no something we will ever find, though. Not by just following our longings to the next shiny thing.

There is no someone we will ever find, though. Not by trying out someone while endlessly looking for the next someone who might be better.

As much as our hearts were made for delight—and that pursuit of delight stands behind the pursuit of “something”—they were also made for devotion. Devotion is the breeding ground for delight.

The lesser and greater delights

Many delights in life can be found through devotion to a craft. Rejecting the endless pursuit of something else and rooting down here (rather than looking for another “there” to go to) opens up the possibility of delight. Devotion to a place, a people, a project, provides the time and space it takes for delight to grow in our hearts. These lesser delights of life are beautiful and worthy to be savored. We were made for these delights. Yet they are lesser. While worthy, even devotion to these lesser delights will never pull us outside of the endless pursuit of something else. Our hearts are made for something more profound than we can achieve by ourselves.

The greater delight is what we are really seeking for in each throw-away delight, each new relationship, each new experience. But no experience resumé of lesser delights ever adds up to the greater delight. The greater delight is not, in an ultimate sense, something—someone really—to be found by us in our pursuit. The Greater Delight demands instead that he finds us. Until we are worn out on the endless pursuit of some greater lesser delight that might bring contentment, the Greater Delight is unexperienceable.

A master of our hearts

The song Irgendwas colors in the contours of modern life, but can’t make sense of why the picture is always blurry and never resolves. There is a need, in the end, to give up on the pursuit. Not to give up on the pursuit of delight, but to give up believing (hoping against hope) that enough lesser delights will ever equal the Greater Delight.

The great lie of today is that we can both be master of self and enjoy the delight for which we were made.

What our hearts really need, really crave for, is a Master who can guide us into delight. Indeed, who is Greater Delight. As St. Augustine said long ago:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it resets in you.”

Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash

Love is loyal

Princess bride wuv twue wuv

“Love is…” Fill in the blank. There are lots of different ways we could describe love. Our culture offers an entire palette of them to choose from. “Love” seems to me to refer mainly to heavily subjective feelings and states of mind. That is, love is seen first and foremost as a feeling experienced within a person. While I don’t want to downplay or denigrate the reality of a feeling or an array of feelings which we unobjectionably call “love,” the biblical witness requires us to dig deeper. A key reality often lost in contemporary notions is this: love is loyal.

Translation troubles: Hesed

Working through the book of Ruth, we encounter an important Hebrew word at three junctures: Ruth 1.8, 2.20, and 3.10. This word is hesed. In general, I try to avoid talking about Hebrew and Greek in non-academic contexts. I find them very interesting and have devoted a great deal of time and effort to understanding them. However, the role of talking about Hebrew and Greek is primarily the role of a scholar. Scholars have done great labor in the languages, culture, and history, so that we can read the Bible and study it in English without having to learn the original languages. That is a blessing of immense proportions!

There is nothing spiritual or esoteric about using this Hebrew word hesed. It just happens to be the case that there is no consistently good way to translate the word into English. It is complex word. Regular translations include “love,” “kindness”, “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” “loyal love,” and so forth.

The fundamental difficulty with rendering hesed into English is that it traffics in a different understanding of “love” and “kindness” than we usually use. Consider these verses from Psalm 136 (the repeated refrain throughout the psalm uses this word hesed):

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.

This one is easy. We can square enduring love with goodness. But as the Psalm continues, we run into problems with using “love.” Consider a few different acts of God which are also attributed as examples of “his hesed endures forever”:

10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt—His love endures forever.
15 [he] swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea—His love endures forever.
18 [he] killed mighty kings—His love endures forever.

These are a little harder to fit into our idea of love and mercy. How does God killing people fit into his “loving-kindness”?

Love is…loyal

Throughout this entire Pslam it is God’s hesed that is under view. It quickly becomes clear that hesed is concerned with something which goes beyond our normal usage of the terms “love” and “mercy.” One scholar puts it this way:

Hesed, however, describes a mutual relationship between man and man or between man and God. Translating it as “mercy,” “compassion,” or “love” destroys the concept of mutuality.”

Harold Kamsler, “Hesed – Mercy or Loyalty?”

This scholar highlights a tendency in our cultural context of understanding love and mercy as one-way actions: I love, she shows mercy, he is full of loving-kindness. Hesed, by contrast, has a strong notion of inter-connectedness. A strong notion of loyalty. A strong notion of relational obligations.

 Here is an expansive definition:

Hesed expresses, essentially, faithfulness and loyal conduct within the context of a relationship; it is an inward commitment and disposition of goodwill together with its outward expression in dutiful and compassionate action. The precise nature of that action depends upon the context, the relationship and also upon the relative positions and abilities of parties within that relationship.”

Robin Routledge, “Hesed as Obligation: A Re-Examination”

That’s a mouthful. But helpful.

My personal favorite quick and easy way to try to represent this is “loyal love,” but even that is not entirely satisfying.

The duty of love

What does duty have to do with love?

We might put it this way: love (in this hesed sense) is bounded within certain limits. This is not a bad thing. I love my family, for instance. I don’t love anyone in Kazakhstan. Not that I am opposed to anyone in Kazakhstan. I’m sure there are many nice people there who I could learn to love. But I have no connection, no commitment to anyone there. I can love them only in a very abstract sense of general benevolence. But I go home and sit with my wife and kids and we eat together, play together, fight together, laugh together, and all those things. We have a commitment to one another and within the boundaries of the commitment, love of a deep and profound kind flows.

The difference is that there is no relational commitment in my general benevolence towards people in Kazakhstan, but there is commitment undergirding our family relationships. Within my family, hesed exists and flows out in acts of care and concern for each other. The relational context is the matrix in which loyal-love has existence. A relationship is like the boundary lines within which hesed is possible.

God’s Hesed

This notion of hesed is important in Scripture. God is a God of love, yet it is a bounded love. Not bounded in the sense of limited, as though God ever runs out of love to give but bounded in the sense of it covers a certain area, if you will. Those outside of that “area” experience God’s general benevolence—“he causes the rain to fall on the just and unjust”—but not the deep and profound love, the hesed. That love flows within the bounds of relationship: his covenant, his people, those who have come to “live in the area of God’s love,” as it were. And within the bounds of this love, God’s love is not only a good thing, but a duty, a loyal thing. God fully commits himself to those who are within this “area.”

The Bible calls this “area” of God’s love many things: the kingdom of God, salvation, eternal life, being in Christ. What unites them is the undergirding reality that God fully and freely commits himself to any and all who come into this area of his love. And he commits to being for them and not against them, to be the giver of joy, to fill up their hopes…and all these things even when they fail to be as they should.

God holds up his loyal love

That last sentence is important. God remains faithful to his hesed, his covenant love, even when we don’t. That is part of why it is so important to keep a sense of duty and loyalty in our notion of love. Even when people in my family make me angry, or I make them angry, we continue in love. Not because we necessarily are happy with each other at the moment. But because we have loyal-love, dutiful love, love which finds its strength and existence in our relationship rather than in the transient nature of our feelings at the time.

The gold standard of this kind of hesed, loyal-love, is God reaching out to humanity in various promises (covenants). In these promises, God makes a commitment to humanity. The commitment sets the boundaries in which hesed exists. Those who enter in get to receive the endless bounty of God’s loyal-love…even when we fail to be loyal. Why? Because God’s loyalty to his commitments never runs out. While anger and frustration are not foreign to God in his dealings with humanity, he does not cease to be full of loyal-love.

This calls for praise! Praise God that his love is loyal to the end.

This calls for emulation: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesian 5.1-2).

Ruth, gleaning, and providing for the Future

1 in 4 twenty year olds will be disabled at some point

In the beginning of Ruth 2, we come across Ruth and Naomi, two intrepid widows joined by the bonds of love, yet dealing with a practical problem: they don’t have food and they don’t have money, so how are they going to survive in Bethlehem, where they recently returned? They have fallen in a gap and there is no financial plan for the future which covers them.

They are in this situation primarily because their husbands have died, they have been absent to a different country for a decade, and they don’t have clear access to what they need. The land that Naomi owns, which we will find out about only in chapter 4, has somehow fallen either into disuse or into the de facto control of someone else. If in disuse, it was not planted so they would get no food from it for an entire calendar year (they are at the beginning of harvest time now, and there would not be another harvest for a year). Or someone else from within the clan of Elimelech is using it, and they are loath to give back from the work they have put into it. Whatever the case, Naomi and Ruth don’t have food, don’t have a job, and don’t have a husband, so they fall back on the social safety net to stay alive.

Social Safety Nets

In today’s terms, the social safety net involves webs of governmental programs, non-government organizations, and charitable groups (like this church) who help through food, finances, provision of places to stay, training, etc., when someone is in a position like Naomi and Ruth. In our time, the logical place for Naomi and Ruth to begin would be to go and apply for food aid through some governmental program. But nothing like that existed in ancient Israel. What to do?

Ruth comes up with a plan falling back on a well-known and oft-practiced practice in their time and place: gleaning. Gleaning refers to going through a field which has been harvested and picking up the leftovers from the harvest. There is certainly food to be had, but it is long, hard work and the returns for the efforts are quite small compared to those returns from harvesting.

Gleaning Laws

The right for widows, orphans, and destitute to glean in ancient Israel is enshrined in the Law. Leviticus 19.9-10 is one of the many places which say the same thing:

9 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. (NIV)

During harvest, the owners of the field were to leave a certain amount of the field—probably around the edges—standing. The gleaners could go through here. Also, in the harvesting process, anything that got dropped as the harvesters used their sickles or bound the stalks into bundles, was to be left for the gleaners. While a far cry from a social security check or a WIC card, these provisions accomplished the same basic outcome: those who had resources were to provide for those who didn’t.

All these commands rest on the same basic premise: God is the owner of the land. God gives land to the different tribes and families as their possessions, but he does not forfeit ownership of the land. He still reserves the right to tell them what they may and may not do with it. And one of the things that all owners of the land are required to do is to allow gleaning so that those like Ruth and Naomi who are socially destitute and don’t have land and don’t have the means to survive are still able to get food.

So that’s what Ruth is up to. She is falling back on the social safety net as a means to survive in her destitution.

Provision for the future

I want to take this as a jumping off point for a brief comment about planning for the future. Ruth and Naomi are in a pickle because the social means they had to plan for future security have failed. Their husbands died and they have no children. Thus, their only recourse is the social safety net of picking up stray heads of grain which happened to fall in a field.

There is nothing desirable about Ruth and Naomi’s position at this point. Imagine with me, for a minute, how Elimelech and Ruth’s former husband (Mahlon, as we find out in chp 4), would feel about what is going on. They certainly didn’t plan on dying, but if they could have prepared some way so that their widows did not have to suffer, I imagine they would have. Now, in an agrarian society there is not much you can do to prepare to provide for your loved ones in the event that you die. We are in a different situation today.

Financial preparation for the future

I just want to encourage you to think about those who are financially dependent on you and what ways, if any, you are planning to provide for them in the event you die or become unable to work in some other way.

Did you know, Social Security estimates that roughly one of every four people in their 20s today will experience some sort of physical disability limiting or removing their ability to work for a year or longer in the course of their lifetime? How many of us are financially prepared for losing a year of income? Are you prepared to provide for your loved ones in the event that you lose the ability to work or die? These questions are worth thinking about as we see this example of Ruth and Naomi scrambling to survive because that’s the only thing they’ve got.

Planning for future hardships

Making financial plans for the future is a sensible part of being good stewards of the money and resources God has given to us. In church, there’s often talk about what you do with 10% of your money and the importance of giving. And that’s all important and there needs to be a time to talk about that. But consider that God expects us to do wise and faithful things with 100% of the money and possessions that we have, not just 10%. And one wise principle to follow from scripture and seen from life is to plan on a loss of ability to work and possibly the loss of your life prematurely. What ways can you lessen the impact such an event will have on loved ones who are dependent upon you?

This calls for thinking about things like savings accounts, life insurance, disability insurance, and investments. Not everyone can afford such things, but if you have margin to do so, they provide a wise way to limit the likelihood that your family members will be falling into poverty and desperation in the even that you die or lose the ability to work. In fact, it is worth considering how to make margin in our lives to afford such tools.

Do not provoke your children to anger: the meaning of Ephesians 6.4, part 2

yelling child and frustrated father

Part 1 of this 4-part series provided the key orientation point: provoking a child to anger is a covenantal concept. It does not mean, “don’t do anything that will make your child get mad/angry/exasperated.” Wise and godly parenting will often result in children getting angry. Drawing from usage of the phrase “provoke to anger” in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), we see the main context of usage is a right response of anger when justly held expectations in a relationship are violated.

Putting that into terms of “provoking a child to anger,” we can say that parents provoke a child to anger when they act towards their children in ways that violate the justly held relational expectations that children have of parents.

This is a good place to start, even if it’s really broad. It points us on a clear direction of inquiry. As parents, we need to give thought to what children can justly expect to receive from us in the parent/child relationship. Some of these expectations are clear. Children justly expect their parents to protect them (especially before they are grown up), and parents who use their greater power to hurt rather than guard their children are “provoking them to anger.” Children justly expect their parents to love them and parents who do not do so are “provoking them to anger.”

When we situate “provoke to anger” within its covenantal context from the Old Testament, one result within parent/child relationships is it appears to cover a range of negative responses from children, not just anger. A child physically abused by their parents may respond in anger or may respond in sullenness and fear. A neglected child may have angry outbursts or may withdraw from the world. In either case, the response is driven by parents violating the justly held relational expectations of the child and would seem to fit under the idea of “do provoke your child to anger.” Compare to the parallel passage in Colossians 3.21.

Just to be clear, when I am talking about what children justly expect from their parents, I am not talking about things they even know how to articulate. That will be age dependent. Rather, I am talking about things understood from Scripture and nature about the needs of a human being in the journey towards adulthood. A two-year old won’t know how to express in words that their parents are not emotionally engaging with them. But they clearly understand something they need is being withheld by their parents.

Moving forward: two categories of justly held expectations

Like most of the biblical passages in Scripture, guidance for parenting aims mainly at the goals rather than the details. As a generalization, much of the biblical material answers the question who we should be rather than the question, “What should the detailed decisions of our lives involve?” We still can step back, though, and distill some guidance on what children can expect from their parents within a sort of “covenantal” context of parent-child relationships.

In the next two posts, I want to take up these concerns from two different directions: (1) psychology and human development and (2) biblical teaching.

In part 3, I want to take up some key categories borrowed in from the world of psychology and human development. Of course, one could take the time to try to argue that all these categories are supportable from somewhere in Scripture, and they probably are, but I’m not going to do that. They are sufficiently broad and deep enough concepts to engage with some of the core experiences of growing to maturity as a human being. They are rooted in how our physiology and neurobiology function. In other words, they simply address some of the basic needs people have in order to grow up into normal, functioning adults.

In part 4 of this series, I will turn to some more specific biblical themes. After all, raising healthy, successful children is wonderful, but it is a far cry short of the biblical mandate. God’s intentions for parents include other key ideas and children have an inherent right to receive them from their parents.

Answering the core questions

The end goal of these two posts is to answer some of the question, “What sorts of things should parents be providing for their children?” In answering this question, we are also at the same time giving ourselves a framework for processing our children’s anger. Are they angry because of a failure to give them something they rightly expect, or are they angry because of sin in their own heart (which calls us to help them understand how to deal with sin in their own heart)?

As one writer puts it:

“Beginning with the first day of life outside the womb, every child is asking two core questions: “Am I loved?” and “Can I get my own way?” These two questions mark us throughout life, and the answers we receive set the course for how we live.”

Dan Allender, How Children Raise Parents: The Art of Listening to Your Family, 21

In answering these questions day by day for our children, they will undoubtedly get mad at us. Our concern is to tune in to the way God created human beings to function and the directions he gives us as parents so that we can get a better idea of when the anger of our child is their own sin and when the anger of our child is provoked by our sin towards them.

Here we are again. Reflections on Buffalo

Here we are again. Another person has decided to take a gun and kill a bunch of people. And it just so happens that this person is strikingly like a lot of other people who have done similar things: a male, white, and sharing a certain racial ideology of the world.

Is this a problem of race? Is this a problem of gender? Is this a problem of gun control? However we talk about and try to answer those questions—and I think that we do need to talk about them and try to answer them—there is some deeper issues that we need to not lose sight of.

The knee-jerk responses of gun-control activists and right-to-bear-arms activists around each mass shooting is to become further entrenched in their own position. To take the new data, integrate it into their existing belief set, and yell louder about how right they are.

The knee-jerk responses around issues of race are the same. Are people racist? Are racial disparities driving everything in our country? Some cry “yes,” and others cry “no,” and what happens in the meantime is more of the same.

The discussions which ensue following such a shooting as just happened in Buffalo (and, don’t forget, several other shootings around the country in that same time period) are predictable. All sides say the same things over and over again. In the clamor over gun control and race/racism, one wonders how much ever will change. How much is even heard?

What do we feel?

It is not my intention here to argue for or against gun control. Of course, if this young man in Buffalo was not able to buy the gun then he would not have been able to shoot so many people. That is self-evidently true, and an important point to wrestle with in forging local, state, and national policy on guns. Yet it is an underwhelming place to focus on.

It is not my intention here to tackle the protracted issue of race and racism. Assuming the reports about the shooter are accurate, it is easy to see he was fanatically racist.

But where does pointing out those self-evident truths leave us? With a pile of dead bodies, ever-growing, and no obvious way out of the course we are on.

As I think about the reports coming out of Buffalo, Southern California, and more, a few things cross my mind.

Sorrow. It pains me to think about the lives that have just been shattered. Those who died. Those who are dying. Those who will now be wrestling with the hurt stemming from a loss of innocence and hope.

Anger. I am angry that we live in a mass-shooting, rinse, and repeat culture. For a saddening list of mass shootings in the US this year, see here.  I am angry that we live in a culture where local kids make plans to go to their schools and shoot people they don’t like. I am angry that too often those plans materialize into reality. I am angry that hopelessness is so rife in our culture that killing others, or killing oneself, seem like good solutions to so many people.

Curiosity. I am curious where the disconnect is in the lives of so many. Where did this young man get the ideas of racial superiority and violence from which somehow made his life make sense? Where does hopelessness come from in the lives of many who take guns to others or to themselves? I wonder what it would be like to sit down with this young man who just killed so many people in Buffalo and have a heart-to-heart conversation asking, “What do you hate so much about yourself and your life that the only way you know to express your pain is in giving deep pain to others?

What do we do now?

I don’t know what to do.

I’m not sure that “doing something” will ever fix what is around us, though I suspect and hope there are lots of ways to improve the cycles of violence and racial ideology which the recent shooter in Buffalo put so clearly back in our view.

I suspect there are policy decisions that could lessen the frequency of gun violence. I suspect there are mental health services which could help. Those are discussions to be had.

Right now, I am more concerned with something deeper. Something whose lack is rather troubling.


The shooter’s racial ideology is completely devoid of empathy. There is no real attempt to consider the lives of black people as other people in the world trying to make their way. Or, if talking in terms of race is too bold for you, there is no real attempt to consider the lives of other human being as people in the world trying make their own way. In the moral imagination of the shooter, it seems these other human beings had little more significance than ants that might be stepped on.

How does one live with so little empathy?

The very act of taking up a gun to shoot other people displays a pronounced lack of empathy. Someone steeped in empathy may fight and kill at times, but understands that fighting and killing is not a way to escape your own pain. Shooting others is not a way out of troubles, not a way out of the prisons you already live in in your deepest being.

What do we do?

Gun control discussions and debates need to happen, and they will. Further discussion and debate about racial ideology needs to happen, and it will. Discussions of mental health, poverty, bullying, socio-economics, etc., need to happen, and will.

These are not, though, and won’t be quick solutions to the problems which lead us to Buffalo. The most recent in a long line of such shootings.

There are no quick solutions. No easy way to go from “here we are” to “there we want to be.”

As I look at the world around us, I am challenged to think of a different question than how do we get white racists to stop shooting black people. I am challenged to think of how we assault the world with the sort of compassionate empathy which Jesus showed, and still shows.

This kind of empathy can rock hearts to their rocky depths.

This is also the empathy that got Jesus killed.

Do not provoke your children to anger: the meaning of Ephesians 6.4, part 1

yelling child and frustrated father

My kids get mad at me. A lot. I don’t say that as a point of pride, merely an observation of the status of life in our household. Now, I am certain there are many times when their anger is a legitimate and healthy response to something I have done that is not right. One could say that I (more often than I care to) provoke my children to anger.

And all this happens in a context where I hold dear the admonition of Scripture as found in Ephesian 6.4:

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

What does my children getting angry at me mean? Am I sinning? Should I be avoiding all things that result in them getting angry? What exactly is “provoking them to anger,” anyway?

Not all anger is the same

It is worth establishing some basic ground rules from our experience. From life in the trenches, we know that anger happens a lot. Even in “healthy” households. We will start with our experience and then move back and consider the ideal that Scripture gives.

A simple observation to begin with: not all anger is the same. In other words, sometimes my children’s’ anger towards me is righteous anger. They are angry because I have acted toward them in a way that is sinful. When someone violates the integrity of our person, anger is a natural response. Just like we as adults get angry when people wrong us, so too our children. At the beginning, let’s just be honest that sometimes our kids get mad at us because we “provoke them to anger” by sinful actions towards them.

But what about when they get mad at me for things like:

  • making them brush their teeth instead of watching a show;
  • telling them that they don’t get to have candy right now;
  • disciplining a child for hurting another child;
  • insisting that they talk to their parents in a respectful way and not listening to them when they whine;
  • making them apologize for wrong behavior;
  • etc.

Wisdom from life tells us that this sort of anger is not the same as the first. I can affirm that my children are, in fact, angry and that my actions have provoked them to anger. After all, if I just let them watch the show there would be no anger right now. And yet, life experience and wisdom also tell us that these sorts of parental actions are necessary. When parents do not take it upon themselves to impose wise choices upon their children, the result is a disaster of a child that all too often turns into a disaster of an adult.

As I write this my children are still young, and it is easier to see that their anger is not justified (assuming that I am enforcing wise choices upon them in a loving way, which is not always the case). What happens as children get older? How do we understand when our actions are “provoking a teenager to anger,” for instance?

While I don’t have a definitive answer for the complexities of being a sinful parent raising sinful children, I can point us to a deeper understanding of what this passage in Ephesians 6 is saying. And the key here is a covenantal context.

Provoking to anger in covenantal context

To begin, let’s revisit Ephesians 6.4. Here is a smattering of ways it is translated:

  • “You fathers, don’t provoke your children to wrath, but nurture them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (WEB)
  • “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (NIV)
  • “Fathers, don’t frustrate your children with no-win scenarios. Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.” (MSG)
  • “Fathers, don’t stir up anger in your children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (HCSB)
  • “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (ESV)

There is clear consensus on the last half of the verse: train and instruct. The first half of the verse describes something negative, with notions of wrath, exasperation, and anger. But what does that mean in real life?

“Fathers” or “parents”?

First, just note that the command to “fathers” is best understood today as a command to parents. We could delve into language and culture details as to why that is the case (and if you want some of that, just ask me!), but just know that it encompasses parents in general.

I would advocate translating this passage something like: “Parents—and especially you, fathers—do not provoke your children to anger.” This accounts for the fact that the text is primarily directed at men within its original context while also acknowledging the realities of the modern family, and the myriad of different authority structures which are present therein. From single-parent homes to homes with present but absentee fathers, etc. The point of the passage addresses a reality that parents are able to parent in such a way that they exasperate their children.

Covenantal context

To understand what “provoke to anger” refers to, we have to consider just what Paul is doing in this brief exchange. Starting from Ephesians 5.21, Paul is discussing the normal relationships of human life in his day in terms of gospel submission: wife and husband, child and parent, and slave and master.

Let’s look at Ephesians 6.1-4 a little closer:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

In this passage Paul cites directly from the 10 commandments regarding how children are to relate to their parents (Exodus 20.12). In v. 4, he alludes to Deuteronomy 6—the Shema and the immediately following verses—about the responsibility of parents to teach the words of the covenant to their children. In both parts of the child/parent relationship, then, the expectations laid out are grounded in terms of God’s covenant. That is, they are covenantal.

Said differently, Paul is not giving parenting advice or tips about how to deal with kids or parents like you would find in the self-help section. Instead, he is unpacking how the truth of God being a covenant God who reaches out to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ provides a framework for being a child or being a parent. While this passage is detail-sparse in terms of what boots-on-the-ground parenting looks like, it is profound in giving us a guiding vision.

But there is more we can say than just that it is a guiding vision.

Parenting and covenants

Paul shows us that being a child and being a parent is framed within God’s covenant. We might say that there is an implicit covenant between child and parent where each party has obligations to the other. When each party fulfills those obligations, the result is harmonious and mutually beneficial.

Since I have mentioned “covenant” a few times, it is worth defining. Covenants are formal relationships characterized by faithfulness and loyalty in love. There is clearly no “formal” covenant in families. However, in the biblical view, family is strongly covenantal. There is a stronger and a weaker party (the parents and children, respectively), with obligations placed upon each party. The stronger—parents—is to act for the benefit of the children in areas like provision, wise instruction, discipline, and so forth. The primary response of the weaker party—the child/children—is respectful obedience. For a good description of family dynamics as portrayed in the OT and NT, see God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, 2nd ed., chapters 5-6).

Setting aside the fact that our relationships with children are often full of disharmony and antagonism (thank you sin), the aim is for harmony and mutual benefit. This view stands behind Psalm 127.4-6:

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, / the fruit of the womb a reward. / Like arrows in the hand of a warrior / are the children of one’s youth. / Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! / He shall not be put to shame / when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

This passage shows an ideal: harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships between the parents and kids. No one counts it as a blessing when parents and children are characterized by mutual antagonism, violence, distrust, or other negative relational markers. But when all is well, both parents and children are blessed from the covenantal relationship of the family.

Provoking to anger is a covenant relationship phrase

Why am I bothering to talk about covenants? Well, it turns out that “provoke to anger” is used almost exclusively in covenant contexts in the Septuagint.

The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament which is freely used, alluded to, and cited in the NT.

The word translated variously as “provoke to anger, etc.” (it’s παροργίζω, if you want to know) is used 57 times in the Septuagint. Far and away the most common context is that the Israelites provoke the Lord to wrath by their sin. It is also used of general relational violations. We might summarize its dominant usage as follows: being “provoked to anger” is a result of the other party in the covenant failing to live up to the terms of the covenant.

Consider a concrete example. God, the covenant maker, tells the Israelites, “You shall have no other gods before me.” When the Israelites worship other gods, what happens? God is provoked to anger. Why? Because they are violating the terms of the covenant. The expected behavior of the covenant partner is not kept (the Israelites are worshipping other gods). The result is that God is “provoked to anger.”

From the side of the people of Israel, if they keep the covenant faithfully, they expect God’s blessing. If God were to withhold his blessing from them, even when they were being faithful, then God would be “provoking them to anger.” Of course, this doesn’t happen. But it is illustrative. In a covenant, both parties have responsibilities towards each other. The bulk of the responsibilities rest on the stronger party.

This I think is the heart of “provoking to anger:” it has to do with violation of justly held expectations and rights. God is angry with the people because they have broken the covenant terms. Provoking to anger is accomplished through treating the other party wrong in the very arenas of life where they have just expectations to be treated right.

And one more thing to note. The core purpose behind the covenant is to facilitate a relationship between parties characterized by faithfulness and loyalty in love.[1]

Non-provoking parenting

This post is already too long, but I want to briefly sketch out where we are going in the next post. If being a parent is like part of a covenant, then we are to understand “provoking to anger” in a specific sense. Parents “provoke their children to anger” not whenever they do something that their kids get mad about, but when parents violate the terms of the parent/child “covenant.” Making your child finish their homework before going out with their friends may make them get mad, but, if done rightly, falls within the purview of parents teaching their children the wisdom necessary to thrive in this world. That is not provoking your child to anger in the sense of Ephesians 6.4.

With all the anger responses which parents so regularly receive from children, though, what can guide where we aim in thinking about our relationship with our children. After all, sinful parents raising sinful kids means there are lots of opportunities for things to get gummed up. What should we aim at?

To that, we will turn in the next post.

[1] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 54.

Screaming photo created by karlyukav – www.freepik.com

National Day of Prayer

national day of prayer graphic

National Day of Prayer is right around the corner. The theme this year is Exalt the Lord Who Has Established Us.

Come join us and other churches in the community on May 5th for a time of prayer focused on our nation and community. Everything will be centered at the Jared D. Martin Memorial Pavilion right next to the church. We will focus on praying from 7 am-7 pm.

Come if you are able. To sign up in advance for a time you will be there, use this link. There is no need to sign up. If you have a minute–or a bunch of minutes–throughout the day, just drop by and pray.

The Resurrection of Lazarus and the Resurrection of Jesus

resurrection of lazarus

Here is my short message from the Easter Sunrise service. It is based in Ezekiel 37.1-3 and John 11.17-27.


In Ezekiel’s vision he saw a valley of dry bones. A valley of death. And God asked him,

“Son of man, can these bones live?”

Ezekiel answers,

“O Lord God, you know.”

The vision continues with God having Ezekiel prophecy over the bones, and they receive flesh. Then he prophecies to the wind, and they receive the breath of life.

Of course, in Ezekiel, the prophecy concerns the people of Israel, who are like a valley of dried bones. Lifeless. In the prophetic vision, God shows himself as one able even to raise the dead, to rebuild bodies that had crumbled away into dust.

But then what? After all, Israel had died once already, becoming like a valley of dried bones. Of what good is a resurrection if it does not actually escape death. Resurrecting a valley of dried bones allows them to take a vacation from death, but it seems like death is once again the final destination.

Indeed, more than a few people are brought back from death as recorded in the OT. There is the son of the widow whom Elisha raises to life again. Or the rather random story where a dead body was hastily thrown into the tomb of Elisha. When the corpse touched his bones, the man came back to life again.

But nothing changed. The widow’s son lived to die another day. Likewise, the unnamed man whose corpse had the fortune—or misfortune—of touching Elisha’s body and revivifying, also died again.

Resurrection from the dead, you see, doesn’t actually change anything. All alike proceed on to Sheol.


Consider now the resurrection of Lazarus. He is the last named of various people Jesus raised from the dead in his ministry: Jairus’ daughter and the son of the Widow of Nain being the other two we are told about. Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, was dead some four days, and Jesus called him back. Back to what? To life, yes. But what sort of life? What had really changed for Lazarus? About him?

While the idea of resurrection from the dead has a certain appeal to it, perhaps a fleeting glimpse of the immortality that people long for and hope for, in truth, the resurrection of Lazarus is a cruel trick, if that is all you have to offer. To bring someone back from the dead is of no great advantage if they only will die again.

Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches that he has come to bring eternal life. What does he mean by that somewhat enigmatic phrase? That existence will keep going on? That our hair will grow grayer forever, are aches multiply, and our memories dwindle? That, if one of his followers happens to die, he will raise them back to life again?

An eternity of resurrection unto dying again is an endless cycle of pain, not a deliverance. With Lazarus we see death set aside for a time, but only for a time. He travelled into death, was pulled out again, but there was only one place for him to go: back into the arms of death again.

The question posed to Ezekiel is “can these dry bones live?” The question posed by the resurrection of Lazarus is, “What sort of ‘resurrection and life’ is Jesus, anyway?  Is resurrection worth it?”


In John 11.25-26 Jesus says,

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

As Jesus stands before the dead man Lazarus, he does not just claim to be able to bring back life—as he has done before and is about to do again. Lazarus will come forth from the tomb. The dead man will walk out alive. But that is not all Jesus is talking about. He claims to be life. He is the resurrection and the life.

In the death of Jesus, Life is killed. The Resurrection is sent to the grave. And it appears that all hope is lost. It appeared that Death had finally triumphed. That God’s creation was doomed forevermore to Sheol. For if even “The Life” is sent to Death, then what hope is left?

If Death is the enemy, the lord over us, and Jesus is The Life, the question to be answered is whether Death is, in the end, stronger than Life. After all, bringing people back from the dead does not deliver them from Death. So long as nothing changes, death is the only destination to which all or going.

But on Easter morning, everything changed.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not a vacation from death, as the resurrections before him. The resurrection of Jesus is a tear in the fabric of reality through which a newer, more real reality shines through. Through that tear, a whole new creation steps in, bright and clean, into the drab and dusty confines of this present world. A life everlasting. The Life which is stronger than death and cannot be contained in Sheol.

In Jesus, The Life is not just called back from death—this is no “near death experience” or “15 minutes in heaven.” This is not even Lazarus, the dead man, called back to life. It is Life which has gone down into Death and emerged triumphant. Jesus, the undead, the deathless, the dead who is dead no more, wields power over Death, the great enemy.

In the resurrection of Jesus, we see what is to come. We find hope. Hope that life is not just a one-way trip to death. Hope that, yes, the dry bones can live again. They can live because Jesus has an invincible life. Is Life Everlasting. All who believe in him, though they die, will live. Because Jesus can go down into death with them and bring them through it into True Reality. The New Creation where death has no place because Jesus has conquered it, banished it, and all who stand in Jesus’ hands are forever outside the reach of death.

Jesus is resurrection. Jesus is life.

As he stepped out from that tomb, everything had changed. Where, o Death is your sting? Jesus has taken it, tasted all your poison, and yet has walked out of you, triumphant.

Jesus says, “all who believe in me, though they die, they will live.” Death, the former end of all things, has become merely a waypoint along the journey to Life Everlasting. The hope of the follower of Jesus is that death is merely a vacation from life as we journey on in the trail blazed by Jesus—the trail through death into life. The Resurrection has triumphed and turned Death into a great doorway to Life Everlasting.


The picture at the top is an oil painting, Andrey Mironov, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons