On death and dying today

tombstones in french cemetary

God created us to live in bodies. And bodies die. Everyone dies eventually. Barring the imminent return of Jesus, anyone reading this will die sometime in the next few decades. A cheery thought to make your day. While I don’t suppose dying has ever been simple or fun, it has taken on a certain measure of difficulty and complexity in the times we live in. Dying can be really difficult, in many different ways. Being far from an expert on the matter, I wanted to share a couple thoughts on death and dying today.

The most immediate impetus for this came while reading a recent article by R. R. Reno in First Things. He writes:

Over the last few years, Canada has rolled out a program of doctor-assisted suicide. Originally restricted to those facing “reasonably foreseeable” natural death, in 2021 it was expanded to those whose illnesses need not be terminal. the Canadian government is considering an expransion of this program to cover “mature minors,” including those as young as twelve, who are deemed “fit” to make a decision to end their lives. These policies are widely popular. Polling suggests that 86 percent of Canadians approve of a “right” to die. We should not be surprised. As Leila Mechoui explains in Compact magazine (“Euthanasia Is LIberalism’s Endgame), “State-administered euthanasia on-demand is the logical endpoint of a society built on secular himanism and utilitarianism. These frameworks preclude any appeal to an absolute authority beyond the individual. The ultimate expression is as a state-protected ‘right’ to a ‘dignified’ death.” The future of the West: a culture of death under the sign of choice.

R. R. Reno, “The Public Square

A culture of death. A culture where we come to feel that we are not truly alive and not fully human unless we have the right to kill others (abortion) and ourselves (euthanasia) when life is not desired any longer.

There’s a lot that could be said about this. I want to share three resources here that may be helpful in thinking about a culture of following Jesus in the midst of a culture of death.

Look here

Joel Cho, a doctor in San Francisco reflects on the role of a long obedience to Jesus when it comes to death and dying in A Doctor Shares the Secret to Dying Well. I especially appreciate how he talks about many people being “bewildered by death.”

Mélodie Kauffmann, a nurse in France, reflects on the human difficulties of suffering, especially as a caregiver for someone else who is dying, in Job’s Wife Urged Him to ‘Curse God and Die.’ Caregivers Get It. The suffering is real for all involved. We would do well to remember that, for most people, the “culture of death” is driven not by reasoned ideology, but by fear and compassion. Fear of suffering and death; compassion on those suffering expressed in a desire to end the suffering as soon as possible.

Last, check out this paper I wrote on passive euthanasia, active euthanasia, and suicide. It began its life in a seminary ethics class. I have thoroughly revised it and offer it as food for thought.

A farewell to death

The hope in Jesus is that one day we will get to say “farewell” to death forever. We look forward to what Paul writes:

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ

1 Corinthians 15.54b-57 (ESV)

Until that time, we will live and labor in a world where death is a tyrant and terror. The great hope is that Jesus has blazed a trail through death and can lead us through it into life. But even knowing that doesn’t make it easy to live faithfully in the world of complicated death and dying.

Photo by DDP on Unsplash

The rest of the pattern: keeping Sabbath

Sabbath. God says, “Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy” (Ex 20.8, NIV), so it must be important. What is the Sabbath? When is it? Should we keep it? Maybe you have a moment to think about those questions. More than likely, though, you’re just too busy to even know or care. In a world of restless and relentless busyness—with more piling up as you read—what should we do about the Sabbath?

The word “Sabbath” is just an English version of a Hebrew word. It means “rest,” or “cessation.”

The Sabbath in the Bible

Before considering some of our own time and culture, let’s take a moment to consider a little of what the Bible tells us about Sabbath. In the Old Testament, Sabbath is incredibly important.

  • Sabbath is a weekly reminder that God completes his work, teaching the people to hope that God will do it again.
  • Sabbath is a holy time in the best interest of the people and the animals in God’s Kingdom.
  • Sabbath is a sign that God set Israel apart for a special relationship with him.
  • Sabbath is a reminder that Israel was slaves in Egypt but have been redeemed from servitude into life that involves rest.
  • Sabbath is a day to celebrate that there is rest and cessation within creation, not just endless stream of more; that while there is much still to be shaped and done, there is much that is done and requires no more work.[1]

For reasons that I don’t want to delve into here (too long of a discussion), I don’t believe that we as followers of Jesus today are mandated to keep the Sabbath in the sense it’s talked about in the Old Testament Law. However, that doesn’t free us from considering the centrality of the Sabbath within God’s revelation of himself in this world. The Sabbath was not an afterthought or an accident. Sabbath is part of the foundational pattern of creation and of the way that time is meant to be marked, measured, and experienced. Within the order of creation, within the order of the way that God marks time, rest has a central role.

The Sabbath and Us

While we may not be mandated to keep the Sabbath as an expression of keeping God’s Law, we’re also not free to ignore the Sabbath as part of the pattern of creation. It may be fine for us to mark a different day than Saturday as holy (the Old Testament Sabbath), or to set aside different times within the week rather than a whole day, but for us to reject God’s pattern of setting aside time from the normal rhythm of work is to suggest that God’s plans and intentions are wrong.

Instead of equating Sabbath to Sunday (which is not bad, but not entirely necessary, either), let’s think of Sabbath instead as a pattern of working God-honoring rest into our lives. In a lifestyle of constant busyness and achievement, this pattern is not just about getting us some time to breathe, but teaching us to realign our hearts towards God and towards others in the right way.

You see, our hearts are desperately prone to idolatry, to fooling ourselves, and to avoiding the work of maturing in Christlikeness. Sabbath fights against all three of these issues. Sabbath puts us at rest before God and with others. Sabbath guards us against many key idols of the current era.

What idols? Consider with me 1) demi-god syndrome, 2) busyness as a distraction, and 3) busyness as self-worth.

demi-god syndrome

Demi-god syndrome is the belief or lifestyle which states that God needs me to be busy all the time because he can’t quite handle it without me getting things done. Whether driven by anxieties and fears, or by an overinflated sense of self-worth, or by having many abilities and needing to make sure things work great in different areas, demi-god syndrome is second nature to so many in our time and place. Well not said in so many words, those living with demi-god syndrome are laboring under the conclusion that God can’t hold things together without their constant input.

busyness as distraction from significant problems

Another destructive way that busyness functions in our lives is as a distraction from significant issues. There is a time and place for being busy in helping us through challenging times. But when busyness becomes a habitual way to escape the gospel and heart work needed to grow us in Christ-like maturity, we’ve got a major problem. When we start looking to busyness to give us what our hearts crave instead of turning to God who gives us rest and teaches us the path to wisdom, we are rejecting God’s work in our lives. For many of us, through habituation or difficulties in life, busyness has transformed into the normal way in which we get what our hearts crave—release from various burdens in life. God calls us to a much more challenging task than being busy. He calls us to the task of surrender and grace.

busyness as self-worth

Busyness also is a convenient way to judge your self-worth: “I’m busy, so I must be valuable.”

  • I must be important because I have so many people with so many claims on our time.
  • I must be important because I have visited so many neat places and done so many neat things.
  • I must be important because I never have a moment to rest when there isn’t something else to think about.

And the logic of this delusion is so simple: people who are important have lots of demands on their time and have lots of people looking to them and often are busy doing many neat things in neat places. When our sense of self and value becomes tied up in being busy and in the many things that we do while we’re busy, though, we’re flirting with idolatry.

Sabbath as a trainer

In all honesty, our hearts are really deceitful. The old Greek dictum, “know thyself,” is easy to say but hard to do. Busyness is an easy pattern of life to fall into, because most everyone else around us is also busy. Whether you have already turned busyness into an idol like those above or not, the busy lifestyle we tend towards trains our hearts toward these types of idolatry. How do we counteract this idolatry-in-training? Sabbath comes to mind.

Sabbath is rest. It is meant to be a time of realigning our hearts toward God and toward others. In putting it in these terms, I want us to see that Sabbath is not meant as a personal spa day in which we get to take it easy and cater to our every whim. Sabbath is a gift and practice given to us from God to challenge the idolatrous tendencies of our hearts. It a time—whether a day or split up around the week—of worship and wonder, of celebration and joy. It should be a day to learn what is important, not just what is urgent and significant. Sabbath should rekindle our hearts with love towards God and love towards others.

How to Sabbath?

It probably won’t look like sitting in an uncomfortable chair all day long, trying not to talk to anybody or avoiding doing any sort of work at all. Here is one general principle:

If you work with your mind, Sabbath with your body; if you work with your body, Sabbath with your mind.

Do something which connects your heart back to God and others in a joyful way. This should involve Scripture, truth, and worship; this will probably involve some sort of Christian fellowship; and it can involve more than that as well.

But one thing Sabbath should not involve: being busy about things that you are normally busy doing. After all, Sabbath means cessation. It is hard to turn to the new possibilities of life with God in this world if you never stop trudging along, head down, endlessly focused on the next task in front of you. God invites us to take a break and find our bearings again. That is Sabbath.

[1] Summarized from Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredericks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 71–73.

Post Photo by Jessica Delp on Unsplash

The Strength of Tradition

Tradition is strong.

Tradition is strong like a straight-jacket, rigidly holding everything in place and constraining flexibility and innovation.

Tradition is strong like a brace, supporting a joint so that it can perform beyond its enfeebled ability.

That it isn’t, can’t be, strong in just one of these ways is what makes tradition such an insightful and challenging companion on the journey. Tradition is an endlessly inventive sparring partner.

The answer to who we are emerges in the discussion of the present and the past. Tradition is the major voice from the past.

The historic Baptist tradition

At the beginning of our series “Core Beliefs: Where Are We?”, we talked about our core beliefs and what they do for us. You can check that out here. In the preamble, we say that as a church we stand in the historic Baptist tradition.

There are good, bad, and ugly things about the historic Baptist tradition, itself a subset of the historic tradition of Christian orthodoxy (that is, right following of Jesus). The Preamble of our Core Beliefs summarizes a few aspects of this historic Baptist tradition. But here, I want to meditate for a little while on the value of standing in a tradition: tradition speaks into the present to help us better understand where we are in the midst of the fog. We will see that the historic Baptist tradition speaks with a helpful voice into current political questions.

Note that this post is longer than usual (~ 2,500 words, or about 2-3x longer than usual). Reader, you are warned.

Origin of the tradition

The historic Baptist tradition holds two important political values: liberty of conscience and separation of church and state. These two values are two sides of the same coin, answering the question, “What role should governing authorities have in the religious life of people being governed?” In the modern American context, we are used to the idea of separation of church and state.

What we may not have thought so much about, though, is that these values grew up in a very different time and place. When Baptists were first coalescing as a recognizable sub-group within Christianity in the early 1600s, basically everybody believed that the government should enforce “proper” worship in a state church. The point of separation of church and state within the Baptist tradition was that the state should not only tolerate different churches (or denominations) but that it also must not privilege a certain church. This is a long and interesting story involving many colorful people that can be read elsewhere.

These values which Baptists, among others, championed eventually—and often slowly and unevenly—made their way into the mainstream and are now enshrined in the US political system. The current multi-cultural, multi-religion US is the fruit of that legacy. People in the US generally believe that the system of government exists to regulate the well-being of how people relate to one another, but not to enforce or oversee the good of their souls by attempting to enforce religious observance.

Is our system the perfect solution to the problem of living together within a diverse society? No. But, looking back through history, I think it’s probably right up there at the top of ways that complex societies have yet come up with to enable diverse people to flourish together.

While the historic Baptist values of separation of church and state and soul liberty have largely gone mainstream in US culture, within the Baptist tradition they derive from certain theological convictions. Most importantly, the biblical convictions that 1) each person stands in direct relationship to God as an individual and 2) that true faith in Jesus cannot be legislated or coerced. Because of this understanding, we believe in tolerating members of other faiths so that their hearts can be turned to God through evangelism.

A contemporary conflict

Why belabor these points? Because in our current moment, the historic Baptist tradition speaks with a voice many Christians (and people who identify as “Christian” for political reasons) need to hear. In the current political moment, many conservative people—especially white Evangelicals, broadly construed—are talking about “Christian Nationalism.”

Paul D. Miller, an Evangelical sociologist, writing for Christianity Today, describes the movement this way:

Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance.

Christian nationalists do not reject the First Amendment and do not advocate for theocracy, but they do believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square

Paul D. Miller, “What is Christian Nationalism?

Whatever the particular merits of Christian Nationalism are—and for full disclosure there are people whom I deeply respect who describe themselves and their ideals as Christian Nationalist—we are wise to listen to the voice of the historic Baptist tradition we stand in as a church. The Christian Nationalist movement seems poised to try to push aside the values of liberty of conscience and separation of church and state. Giving special political privilege to Christianity and seeking to legislate Christian values on people who don’t want them looks like a rejection of the historic Baptist insight that the government’s job is not to enforce religious observance on people.

There is an important discussion to have about the degree to which Christian values represent values which are good for human society to follow in general. Some who fly under the Christian Nationalist banner appear to argue nothing further than this point. I agree in principle. When the Baptist tradition was solidifying, most people in “Christendom” broadly agreed to a general moral code that approximates many aspects of biblical virtues. That is clearly not the case today. But I would hasten to add that it is possible to labor for generically good social values and conditions without pursuing Christian Nationalism in the sense described above.

Appeal of Christian Nationalism

Christian Nationalism has some obvious appeal. In a cultural moment where Christian and conservative values—which are sometimes, but certainly not always, the same thing—seem to be on the retreat everywhere, people are looking for some way to hold on to what they believe America should be. I myself would be happy to see a conservative turn in the national moral landscape, regardless of peoples’ politics. Kevin DeYoung, a prominent theologian within the Evangelical movement, helpfully  describes the appeal of Christian Nationalism against the backdrop of major social change:

“We have to realize that people are scared and discouraged. They see America rapidly becoming less and less Christian. They see traditional morality—especially in areas of sex and gender—not only being tossed overboard but resolutely and legally opposed. Of course, we should not give way to ungodly fear and panic. We should not make an idol out of politics. We should not fight like jerks because that’s the way the world fights. But people want to see that their Christian leaders—pastors, thinkers, writers, institutional heads—are willing to fight for the truth. You may think your people spend too much time watching Tucker Carlson, or retweeting Ben Shapiro, or looking for Jordan Peterson videos on YouTube, or reading the latest stuff from Doug Wilson—and I have theological disagreements with all of them (after all, some of them aren’t even Christians)—but people are drawn to them because they offer a confident assertion of truth. Our people can see the world being overrun by moral chaos, and they want help in mounting a courageous resistance; instead, they are getting a respectable retreat [from Evangelical Christian leaders, NJE].

Kevin DeYoung, “The Rise of Right-Wing Wokeism

A confident assertion of truth. That is key. Christian Nationalism, in its various forms, is confident that it is right and is willing to stand toe-to-toe with the forces of cultural chaos, as it sees them.

The wise voice of the tradition

This is neither the time nor place for a robust discussion of Christian Nationalism. As I’ve mentioned above, it is a complex phenomenon with good, bad, and ugly motives and expressions. Having come this far in the post, I want to take a minute to converse with the voice of tradition which we stand in as First Baptist Church of Manistique. While our tradition does not answer all of our difficult questions about politics, it does give us some clear guiding considerations to help us in our disorienting times. As various voices clamor for some version of Christian Nationalism in an attempt to bolster up or recapture a culturally conservative America, we can ask some pointed questions drawn from our tradition.

How has Christian Nationalism worked in the past?

Baptists “came of age” in a time and place where the government sought actively to enforce some version of Christian values and church life upon all citizens. That is, most every government in Europe and in the American Colonies could be classed under some version of Christian Nationalism. And a lot of people didn’t like that. At all. Including lots of Christians who lived in those countries.

In fact, the modern, liberal form of government which we associate with the West rose partially in response to the devastating consequences of the wars of religion which shook Europe. Christians killing Christians in the name of Christianity.

While Christian Nationalism sounds like an appealing idea, especially when compared to the cultural chaos of the moment, we have to honestly acknowledge that it hasn’t worked well in the past. The historical record of countries where Christianity was politically embedded is quite terrible on a lot of fronts. When you mix politics and religion, you end up with politics. More on this below. That is one of the great insights enshrined in the Baptist tradition.

For a good contemporary example of the problems of religious nationalism, see the violent excesses of the Hindu Nationalist movement in India. For instance, consider the use of violence and social ostracization against non-Hindus to force conversions in the name of nationalism, or the increasing violence against any who report on Hindu Nationalism and religiously motivated violence.

Are the aims and values of Christian Nationalism Christian?

This question should always be on our minds whenever we see an attempt to mix politics and religion. One of the clear patterns of history is that when religion is a powerful social force people use religious language and symbols to achieve their own political ends (see next point). If we take a long and hard, or even short and cursory, look at Jesus in his ministry, one thing is evident: he did not organize a political force to take control of the government, the culture, or the world. He will do those things, in his own time, but it will be through his power as the Reigning King of the Universe, not through shrewd political machinations.

Are the aims of Christian Nationalism Christian?

That is a question which we must never stop asking. We can see from history that Christian Nationalism produces many social goods by enforcing a thin version of biblical ethics upon society. There is benefit there. But what Christian Nationalism obviously doesn’t do it build robust followers of Jesus. And, it is worth noting, it has not proven to be a sustainable model of society in the long run. The US Colonies and the Modern European Countries were all Christian Nationalist at one point. What happened? The very values needed to sustain Christian Nationalism grow up from people following Jesus, not from legislating morality.

The Baptist tradition also invites us to ask a more focused question about the role of the church in society. Is the church pursuing following Jesus, or is the church becoming enmeshed in trying to become the government? In a zeal to preserve vestiges of Christian culture from the ravages of militant “progressivism,” is the church living in such a way as to show hope and light of the gospel of Jesus to the world, or living in such a way to punch political opponents in the mouth? Attempting to force people to be Christian, or to live like it, never has worked in the past. Why would it now?

Do we suspect that we are being used for political ends?

Finally, dialoguing with the idea of the separation of church and state (and remembering that it arose out of a desire for Christians to not be forced to support other state churches), should alert us to the possibility that people may just use us for their political goals. In history, the church was intimately united with the state in the West. Why are some politicians interested in reviving this arrangement at the current moment? Might it have less to do with piety and theological convictions, and more to do with political power? That is always a concern to keep in mind.

Leaders can rise up and speak words that sound Christian for political purposes. Of course, there are politicians who are followers of Jesus. But when politicians speak the language of Christianity without actually showing a consistent devotion to growth in Christ-likeness, beware. As like it as not, they are trying to use the language of Jesus to gain earthly power for themselves—something which Jesus himself did not do. Remembering the tradition of separation of church and state serves to guard us from being swept away in the headiness of the moment.

Standing in our strength

The current interest in Christian Nationalism is complicated. There are many threads involved to consider in making sense of the tangled knot which we have. One thread we should hold to is the strong voice of tradition. Knowing the tradition in which we stand can help us ask important questions. Certainly, asking the questions doesn’t give us the answers of the good, bad, or ugly ways we can interact with the Christian Nationalist movement. As followers of Jesus, we need to be reminded that victory doesn’t come through politics. We serve a king who surrendered himself to an earthly government, yet who then, as now, is exalted over it.

How we vote or where our political allegiances fall will always be complicated. What our tradition helps us with, though, is to resist being drawn off course in our fervor for or against certain political events and movements. The course of a follower of Jesus is to follow Jesus. This may lead to places and governments that look decidedly Christian, or it may not.

In making these few remarks, I want us to see just how relevant even the preamble to our Core Beliefs is for us as we try to live together as followers of Jesus. There are lots of complicated forces pressing us in many different directions in life. These Core Beliefs, even if not always giving easy answers, at least can help keep us from being blown away by the storms around us.

Core Beliefs: Where are We?

Where are we? How can we tell? How can we know where we are going if we are not sure where we are?

As we begin a new sermon series looking at our core beliefs week by week, I wanted to reflect a little on the front end about the sermon series graphic that I’ve put together.

Photo by Artur Aldyrkhanov on Unsplash

Since coming here to FBC Manistique, I’ve been making sermon series graphics. First, I’m not a graphic artist by training or disposition. While not unartistic, it is not an area of my skills which I have developed with any rigor. In fact, if anyone is gifted in the realm of graphic art, I’d be more than happy to engage your valuable services in designing sermon series graphics which can serve as a pictorial guide to engaging the sermon series.

This post is a reflection of what I am thinking in choosing this particular picture for the graphic for a series on our core beliefs.

An inheritance to stand on

As you can see above, the picture is of a person sitting on a lichen-covered rock up in a foggy, mountainous area.

Core beliefs are the firm and settled rock on which we stand. Core beliefs have to do with what we are certain of; the truths we base our lives on; the realities which serve as our firm foundation. They are solid. They are a rock.

We did not make up these core beliefs. While they are in some ways distinct to the particular church tradition that First Baptist Church happens to be in, within our core beliefs dwell the core teachings of the followers of Jesus across the millennia. They serve to sketch out the field and how we stand in it. They are solid.

An uncertain surrounding

But the most arresting part of this image is what you can’t see. The blanket of fog obscures everything else. The man in the grey-hoodie is on a solid rock, but we can only guess where he is in relation to anything else. The rock is firm, but the world is mist.

One of the difficulties which followers of Jesus are facing, and will continue to face, is that our surroundings are increasingly misty. It is getting harder and harder to locate just how the solid rock of beliefs we stand on relates to the rest of the world around us. Knowing the firm foundation even creates a bunch of further difficulties and questions that evade easy answer.

We live in a time and place which, to use a helpful scheme developed by Aaron Renn, is a culture that is hostile to the existence and message of followers of Jesus. I don’t mean by that to imply we face anything like the hostilities in many other countries of the world where Christians struggle and are persecuted. But what I do mean to imply is that holding the beliefs and values of followers of Jesus is increasingly looked upon as odd, socially backwards, and perhaps even threatening to the well-being of people and society around us. And, as a result, we are less certain how our solid rock relates to the world around us. We are increasingly wrestling with uncomfortable realities as our core beliefs become an island in the fog.

In a lot of ways, Manistique is a shelter from these broad cultural trends…so far. Who knows what the future will bring? It is shadows and fog.

Where are we?

What do we do in this situation? If I had a definitive answer to that, I’d happily share it—not to mention embrace it definitively in my own life. But I don’t have a definitive answer. We’re certainly not the first followers of Jesus in history to face the rolling fog enfolding our rock. Many real difficulties are here and coming. Yet, also, many opportunities.

One thing I am certain of: we must become more familiar with the rock we stand on. We must become more familiar not just with what we say we believe, not just with a set of social values generally conservative in nature, not just with an association to certain political movements, but an actual living and vital connection to the truths which have been passed down about who God is, who Jesus is, and the way that God’s spirit is at work in this world.

Our core beliefs are a touch point. They’re certainly not an exhaustive description, nor do they include everything that we need to stand and live and flourish, but they establish a core. And it is a strong enough core to answer the question “where are we,” even if we are never quite sure how that relates to the rest of the world. But, in a world of swirling mists, maybe it’s less relevant for us to be able to answer who other people are, and more important that we can show and say who we are; that we can display the truths which we stand on, live through, and live for.

Winter Reading Challenge, 2022

Stack of leather bound books

At the beginning of this Winter Reading Challenge, consider for a minute this question: Why read books? There are lots of reasons, some personal, some societal, some relational, some intellectual, and so on. Here are a couple thoughts about the role which reading can play in our lives not just as people who can learn from reading, but as followers of Jesus. Sometimes someone just says something well. Here I’ll pass on a few ideas about why to read.

Reading gives perspective to see

Think for a moment about the way that good writers become windows through which we come to see things we did not see before.

“C. S. Lewis regularly emphasized that great writers sought to share something with their readers – something which they themselves had grasped or seen and wanted to pass on to others, so that they might benefit. The best writers are not self-promoting narcissists who demand that we look at them, but those who invite us to look through them at what they have seen, enabling us to share in their experience. They are thus windows to something greater. Lewis himself saw authors not as spectacles to be admired, but as a ‘set of spectacles’ through which we can look at the world and see it in sharper focus and greater depth.”

Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: His Life and Thought, 2.

Reading brings challenge to certainties

One aspect of good writing, especially fiction but also non-fiction, is that it provides an arena in which to challenge our certainties. Now, we must be careful. There are many things in life which we should be certain of and stand on. However, we are always in danger of becoming certain about what is merely our own limited vision of things. And when we become certain, we tend to demand others to live according to what we are certain is correct. This can cause all sorts of problems. Literature can bring us into another world and there unmoor us from what we were so certain about so that, when we come back to the real world, we are forced to ask questions of ourselves we would otherwise stay blind to.

“One aspect of this capacity to be multifaceted means that reading a good novel, or seeing a great play, we are conscious again of the complexity of human life, the ambiguity of so much behaviour, the mixture of qualities and motives in all of us. All this is a very healthy and important antidote to moralism. There is a human tendency to divide the world up into goodies and baddies. This can be so if religion is brought into it, though moralism certainly isn’t the preserve of religion. One of the great themes of Jesus in the Gospels is the way he tries to shake us out of all easy moralizing. We are directed to look at ourselves, at the great plank in our own eye before we call attention to the speck of dust in our neighbour’s eye. So literature, in bringing home to us the complexity, ambiguity and thoroughly mixed nature of human behaviour spells out and reinforces one of the central elements in the New Testament.”

Richard Harries, Haunted By Christ: Modern Writers and the Struggle for Faith, ix-x.

Reading can challenge staleness

And finally, perhaps at the farther reaches of what literature does for us, is that it helps give us categories of thought and belief which make sense in a fresh way to us. It helps us to think about the questions of life we have in language that makes sense to us today.

“At a time when so much religious language has become either unbelievable or alien to many people it is in works of literature that we can begin to discover what the Christian faith is about and what is at stake.”

Harries, Haunted By Christ, x.

There are many wonderful works of literature and theology from years gone past. Being a fluent and dedicated reader requires at least periodically venturing into the great tomes of bygone years. Yet, even spending a short amount of time in a book of a different century often feels like venturing into a foreign land. While the great authors of the past are writing about universal human issues, they do so in a way that often is foreign to us. Indeed, sometimes so foreign that it evades our understanding entirely.

In a similar manner, sometimes the religious and moral answers to life’s questions which we rely on belong to a different dialect, a different time and place, and have lost some of their forcefulness. Literature can shake up our thinking and help us keep speaking the language of our hearts in this day and age, rather than the language of peoples’ hearts from 100 years ago.

Finally, and related, literature is one of the means we can become aware of the ways Christ minsters to us in this time and place, and the ways we need to be broken out of this time and place:

“To every age Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man. This is why he could be a paragon of rationality for eighteenth-century England, a heroic figure of the imagination for the Romantics, and exemplar of existential courage for writers like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. One truth, then, is that Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which means that his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs, or what humans perceive to be their needs. A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present.”

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, 11.

To live now means to be hyper-aware of certain realities of the human experience and to be hyper-blind to others. There are whole ranges of the human experience which we see as half-shadows, or in various degrees of light. The first way we turn to Christ for rescue is doubtlessly in terms of one of the hyper-aware realities of human life in this day and age. Those are the types of brokenness which constantly smack us in the face. But Jesus came to rescue and restore not just those aspects of human life which our day and age lionizes. He came to redeem humanity in its totality, with all its endless complexity.

Reading can help us see the depth, the greatness, the height, the bigness of just what it is that God is doing in restoring the world through Jesus. And to see how he is doing that in our lives.

Happy reading, and may your journey through books bring you to places you never would have dreamed you could go, but to the very places your heart has always been restless to find.

More Stuff for Christmas

Why does Christmas involve so much stuff? I suppose where you are in life, especially regarding whether you have younger children or not, or grandchildren, presses this question more or less into your psyche at this time of year. But why does Christmas have so much stuff?

One could go on an endless rant, site endless studies, give endless statistics about the amount of stuff at Christmas time. I just wanted to briefly share thought provoking comments I came across the other week in thinking about this question.

I find great resonance with the thoughts of this writer, who says:

“The question for me is: how do we confront the dichotomy between the true meaning of Christmas and our learned behavioural norms? I know my two young children have enough – more than enough – of everything. Even they think they have enough. However, ingrained in my psyche is that Christmas morning should herald a lounge bursting with gifts and stockings that take the whole morning to open. If the most sustainable choice is a gift not manufactured, not transported, not purchased, not wrapped, not opened, not sent to landfill, or discarded in some toy box, why do I seek to find ways to fill up my children’s Christmas lists?”

This writer mainly has issues of environmental sustainability in mind. I share these concerns, to a large degree, but I also struggle over questions of materialism, greed, entitlement, the deadening effect material plenty can have on the soul, and the good old fashion desire to just have less junk in the house to have to deal with.

I wonder just what it is that makes it so hard to change. There are so many desirable reasons to be less involved in “stuff” around Christmas time, and most people could cite a good many of the reasons, but the stuff train keeps on rolling. Why do we often feel powerless to do anything but pass on to our children/grand-children the same as we received, even when we are uncomfortable with it and see problems in our own ways of living?

Maybe the difficulty is that stuff is so ingrained as part of life that it blinds us to its idolatrous influence in our lives. Maybe.

Consider today Jesus’ words of caution to two brothers arguing with each other about their inheritance:

Take care and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12.15 ESV)

I doubt I’ll ever have an answer to these questions that feels right. But I’m dedicated to trying to chip away bit by bit at the materialist/consumist streak which runs through my heart. Indeed, if we ever get to a point where our hearts are comfortable with what is one of our culture’s greatest and most obvious sins, then we have lost a key part of the faithful life and prophetic voice we should have as God’s people living in light of KOG values.

Down the rabbit hole: redeeming the news, part 2

Alice falling down the rabbit hole into wonderland

In the last post, I noted how I’ve been falling into the rabbit hole of online news. To switch metaphors, it is like a bug-zapper. Something about it keeps drawing me in, even though I know that getting too close can be perilous. The endless stream of novel stories just waiting to be read beckons me on. How shall we be sensible and faithful in engaging with the world of digital news (or TV news, for that matter)?

Fitting the rabbit hole into life

Orienting principle: there is nothing wrong with reading the news. There can be great benefit in it. But if you find yourself in a place like me where turning to the news becomes a burden, a time-sucking draw, it may be time to climb a little out of the rabbit hole. Here are a couple things to consider for engaging with the news in a faithful way.

The limits of your time

It should go without saying, but needs to be said anyways, that our time is limited. Whether that be my time at work while preparing sermons and prepping other things for church, or our time with our families, or your time doing whatever it is you like to do. We all have limits.

An ever-present threat from online news, or TV news (or any sort of online activity) is that there is no end. There is no natural disengagement point. Movies end. Games end. But you never reach an end with online news, so you never need to stop.

Since the news never runs out, we must be careful of what amounts of time we allow ourselves to spend in engaging with it. Ask yourself how much time you can beneficially spend perusing news stories, then set some way to enforce that time limit.

I'm trying out a browser extension (LeechBlock) on my computer at work to limit the amount of time on different news sites the 10 minutes per every two hours. That's enough time to browse through, find some worthwhile stories, and get back to work.

The goal is to make engaging with the news a part of a broader strategy of preparing for ministry each week, rather than a way to escape from preparing.

It’s worthwhile for all of us to consider the limits of our time and how we engage with the news and other digital media.

Consider the limits of your circle of care

The global scope of online news makes it easy to forget that we have limited circles of care. What is a circle of care? There are only so many people, so many groups, and so many institutions which we can be involved in and meaningfully care about. There are only so many topics about which we can even be marginally informed, and a very tiny amount that we can be an expert on. It should be humbling to consider the vast number of topics about which each of us knows absolutely nothing.

The news provides a smorgasbord of information that far exceeds any individual’s circle of care.

It’s easy to think that my circle of care is far bigger than it really is. But at some point, you have to wonder how much should I really care about the pink dolphins in the Amazon river and how the global environmental situation affects them? While my heart goes out to people protesting in Iran over the recent death of Mahsa Amini, how much do I really care? Better yet, how much time and effort should I spend in caring about it? How relevant is it to my life and the lives of people I live with?

There are no easy answers to this question, but it is a question that we need to ask ourselves periodically.

A practical way to deal with the limits of your circle of care is to come up with a few areas of the news you want to be informed on. Then go find websites which address those areas. Avoid news aggregating sites; they will always bring you things outside of your circle of care. You’ll never hit the bottom of the rabbit hole you’re falling down.

Some news sources I frequent: WIRED, Christianity Today, and Spiegel (a major German news outlet)

The limits of your mental/emotional care

Related, it is important to consider the limits of our mental and/or emotional care. We all have a finite amount of love, concern, and care that we can give. There are more things in the world to care about (and that are worthy of caring about) than we can possibly care about in any meaningful way. Where we use up our care impacts every part of life.

If I have 10 units of emotional care that I can give in a day, and I spend five of them reading different news stories that have very little direct impact on my life, what effect might that have on the people who I go home to live with after work? I have to wonder, how much of my emotional and mental capacity am I spending trying to find and understand crises here there and everywhere around the world, and what sort of state is this leaving me in for when I go home and one of my children is having actual crisis that requires my mental and emotional attention?

Too much attention to the news can burn up our capacity to care for the people in our lives.

You are only human

In summing up these considerations, the main point is that I need to take a little time and remember that I am only human. And I mean that in the best possible sense that one can mean it. Being only human is not a bad thing; It is a glorious thing. But if we try to live as demigods, while only having the capacities of a human, we end up short-serving everyone we really live with.

One of the fascinating and wonderful things about being only human is that our abilities are well-suited for caring for and helping people who are connected to where we actually live in life. There are good and appropriate ways we can learn about and be concerned about things happening on the other side of the world. But the chief measure of loving your neighbor is not how much care you have for people on the other side of the world, but how much care you have for people on the other side of the street.

Pulling out of the rabbit hole

Over the course of this week, I’ve been doing some thinking and planning to engage with the online news in a more limited and focused way. I doubt I have the answer, but I want to engage in a searching for better practices in how to use online news in life and ministry. The rabbit hole is there, it is bottomless, and it has an endless draw for those who look to peek their head into it. I’m working on doing better at standing on my own two feet and not falling in.

Down the Rabbit Hole: redeeming the news, part 1

Alice falling down the rabbit hole into wonderland

The news cycle is shorter than ever. That is commonly accepted wisdom (though it is debatable whether there is anything more worthwhile to say in the endlessly shortening news cycle or not). One easily gets the impression that the news is a track of sad music on endless repeat. Recently, I am reminded that the news is an endless rabbit hole that you can fall into and never come back out from.

The news

I used to not really watch the news. In addition to occasional online browsing, I would catch a few minutes of NPR here and there while driving the kids somewhere or commuting back and forth between my house and school.

But recently, I’ve felt myself falling down the rabbit hole of online news.

Online news

Since starting into pastoral ministry in January, I have tried to be more aware of what’s going on in the world. The stuff in the world and community weighs upon the lives of the people who live in the community, so it makes sense to engage with the news. But there is also a danger, which is what I have been noticing recently.

I have started to fall down the rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole

In the last couple weeks, I find myself with a nagging urge to go check the news. Have a couple minutes? Pull up the news tab. Need a break from thinking about the sermon? Go scan the news. And so forth. After finishing a chunk of work, rather than taking a couple minutes to stand up, walk around, and stretch, I find myself browsing news headlines.

Note, browsing headlines is not a very good way to engage with the news to begin with.

Since the headlines change by the minute—even when very little of substance changes that quickly—there is always something new to look at, read, be interested in. Sometimes there are stories that are worth reading. Sometimes there are stories which promise a juicy tidbit. For someone who has not watched an NFL game in I’m not sure how many years now, so far this season I’ve seen all sorts of headlines about Tom Brady’s life both on and off the field.

How does the rabbit hole draw us in?

The pull

I suspect the draw to go and check the news is much like the well-known and studied way that social media apps work. In short, social media platforms use algorithms. All that means is that they use complex mathematical rules describing how data relates to each other.

Check out here for a brief explanation of how algorithms work on various social media platforms.

Combining these rules, and the scads of information the social media company has about you, its user, results in you receiving a continuous stream of content directed your way that you should like to look at.

 “Like” simply means content that the social media company believes you will take the time to look at, not whether you will find it pleasant, happy, or uplifting.

This all works on a pretty simple premise: our brains crave novelty. Said differently, we notice new things and tune out things that aren’t changing. Just think of the last time you walked into your favorite restaurant. When you first step in the wall of aromas envelopes you. Your nose is going wild as you soak up the delicious scents.

Within a couple minutes, you don’t even notice the smells anymore. But if you got up and walked into another restaurant, your nose would go crazy again. Why is this? Our brains prioritize paying attention to things that are new and changing, not to things that are staying the same. New stimuli—smells, sounds, images, touches—get high priority, but if the stimuli don’t change, in a short time they get downgraded and we no longer pay conscious attention.

Back to the digital world of social media and news. Online companies face one simple problem: the main way they make money is by selling adds, not by charging their users. In the online economy, you are the product. More pointedly, your attention is the product being sold by the tech company to an advertiser. It is in the tech company’s financial interest to keep you browsing as much as possible and coming back as often as possible.

The novelty-seeking brain is key. I want novel content. The news sites give endless novel content. Constantly changing headlines. The endless promise of something good.

Is falling into the rabbit hole good?

The dilemma

I‘ve been noticing that this increased intake of online news is complicated. On the one hand, I know much more about “what is going on in the world” than I have for quite some time. On the other hand, I’m not really sure that is a good thing. And I am not alone on this hunch.

It turns out, many studies note that watching the news can be deleterious to your health. Beyond the very real possibility that my stress (and yours, too) is heightened by watching the news, I wonder how all this casual news consumption relates to my ability to live well with the people I live with.

Staying out of the rabbit hole

In the next post, I reflect on some different things I am trying in order to put better boundaries around the news in my life. After all, as neat as it is to know things about what is going on all over the world, loving my neighbor as myself certainly should begin with my actual neighbors, not my digital ones.

Enemies on the Journey Towards Joy

man boxing against his much larger shadow

There are enemies on the road. If 1 John is a journey towards Joy, one of the things which will come up again and again is that there are enemies on the journey towards joy. Not all goes easy. Not every step is uncontested. In more conservative and evangelical branches of the church, we tend to have a heightened sense of the enemies on the journey. The enemy is the culture. “Those people out there” are enemies hindering our journey. Those policies, the loss of moral values, “people don’t go to church anymore,” the slide (or head-first, breakneck run) down into all sorts of depravity—those are the enemies on the way. And while that is true, an obsession with “those enemies” can blind us to what is probably the greater enemy: the person in the mirror.

A biblical scholar put it well when he said:

“Both the Old and the New Testaments make it painfully clear that God’s people are often their own worst enemies, worse by far than the “world” outside the church, when it comes to faithful appropriation of the gospel message.”

Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey, 3rd ed

The last part of the quote is key: “when it comes to faithful appropriation of the gospel message.” When it comes to living comfortable lives, then a changing culture is definitely a major enemy on the journey. To the degree we associate joy with what our culture calls “the good life,” to that degree changes in the culture hinder our joy. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, there are increasingly many ways that it is getting hard to be both a follower of Jesus and pursue the “good life” of the American Dream.


Gospel Appropriation

Appropriating the gospel is a different concern. There are plenty of cultural hardships—and more appear to be coming—but these are not the only thing which keeps us from joy. The joy which is of highest concern in the Bible is a joy that can be experienced in want and in plenty, in persecution and in power. It is a joy that challenges many of our assumptions about how the world ought to work and many of the assumptions of what “the good life” is.

It is undeniable that there are many external enemies towards our joy.

But ask yourself this question: “What is hindering you from having the vibrant relationship with God that you desire?” While there are many factors hindering us, it is hard to conclude that outside influences have the ultimate say. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that my own lack of desire and engagement is the biggest hindrance in having a vibrant relationship with God.

Targeting the right enemies

We can address wrong beliefs. Those are an important and pernicious enemy on the journey towards joy.

We can address wrong actions. Those also are an important and pernicious enemy on the journey towards joy.

But it is difficult, if not impossible, to make advances when our attempts to address these issues aim mainly outward. The self rages against obedience to the gospel. The self hamstrings our own efforts on the journey towards joy by constantly directing our efforts in the wrong direction.

As we consider enemies on the journey towards joy, don’t forget that in many realms of life, you are your own worst enemy.

Revisiting the threshing floor: how an odd passage in Ruth speaks today, part 2

ruth and boaz at threshing floor

In Part 1, I discussed the overarching perspective on the threshing floor scene I am arguing: that it is actually a redemptive scene. On the threshing floor, Boaz and Ruth model a path of behavior which eschews using sexual manipulation to get what they want. At the same time, the scene does not deny the reality that humans are sexual beings. In the last post, we looked at Naomi’s plan. She sends Ruth to the threshing floor with the apparent intention that Ruth use her sexuality to secure a better future for herself—to whatever extent that be necessary. We also examined the odd part about the feet in the whole plan. In this post, it remains to look at what Ruth and Boaz did. After examining the text and the canonical background, we will move to some application of this narrative. What stands to the fore here, I believe, is that sexual manipulation is not the only way.

Ruth and Boaz: getting things done at the threshing floor

Ruth goes down to the threshing floor and follows Naomi’s instructions to the “t.” As we read through the narrative, it is not immediately clear what she did when she “uncovered his feet and lay down” (3.7). That requires some close attention to what the text says.

Where Ruth lays

Verse 8 is important here. Boaz wakes up and rolls over, and only then is he aware that there is another person there—which he recognizes is a woman.

Note that it is not until Boaz moves that he is aware of Ruth’s presence, suggesting that Ruth is not touching him (at the least, Ruth is not actively attempting to seduce him). This shows that Ruth interprets “(place of the) feet” as laying on the ground somewhere other than on Boaz with the point of having sex. We can assume that she resumes this same position again after they talk, and that that is what Boaz means for her to do (3.13).

What Ruth does there

Beyond merely not trying to seduce Boaz before he wakes up, Ruth continues along this same course of action. Rather than trying to engage in sex, she talks to Boaz. Namely, she identifies herself and proposes marriage. Intriguingly, we are never told anything about what Ruth looks like. Other women in the OT are described by appearance—such as Rachel (Gen 29.17)—so there may be significance in this omission.

Ruth is known only through what she does; she is not reducible to a body. Her moment to shine is when she claims the identity of Ruth, your servant, but your servant who wishes to become your wife.

For readers with a strong sense of the Bible, Ruth’s actions are exactly opposite of what happened when Ruth’s great-foremother, Lot’s daughter, seduced her father in the cave (Gen 19.30-38). Ruth has the opportunity to get what she wants and needs by seducing Boaz, but instead she talks with him.

What Boaz does

Pulling on the hints in the text and the canonical background shows that Ruth performs marvelously. But what about Boaz? Here we see more of the same.

Boaz notices that a woman is lying there. His response is one of surprise. The real key, though, is what Boaz says. He asks, “Who are you?” When faced with an unknown woman in the dark, rather than assuming she is a prostitute rendering her services, he asks the all-important question. This question allows the two of them to figure out the right way to treat each other.

Again, for readers sensitive to the bigger story of the Bible, compare this to the way Boaz’s ancestor, Judah, acts in Gen 38. There, on seeing his daughter-in-law Tamar dressed as a prostitute at the side of the road, the first thing he says is, “Come, let me come in to you” (Gen 38.16), which is a euphemism for having sex. This sets up a discussion about the price for the tryst. By contrast, Boaz’s question indicates he does not presume to have a right to sexual access to the woman laying at his feet. Rather, he seeks to find out who she is so he knows the right way to treat her. How differently the life of Judah and Tamar would have gone if Judah had asked that same question in Genesis 38!

The “heated” discussion

Finally, the sexual tension largely fades away as Ruth and Boaz move into a discussion about the technicalities of marriage law. The depth of Boaz’s honesty in this passage is significant. He does not hide from Ruth—who apparently doesn’t know—that according to their laws there is another relative who has the first opportunity to marry her.

If it were Boaz’s main intention to have sex with Ruth on the threshing floor, this seems like an odd piece of information to share. In effect, Boaz both acknowledges Ruth’s proposal for marriage and at the same time distances himself from the ability to carry out the marriage at this instance. In terms of the “rights of sexual access,” Boaz is not the first one in line.

In making this point, Boaz effectively guards himself against any intentions Ruth may have had to try to have sex with him that night (whether she did or not is a moot point). Boaz tells her, “I will marry you, provided the other relative does not do so first.” This puts a tryst off the table for the evening.

Technical aside 

While it may sound odd to our ears, scholars of the Bible—and other cultures with similar practices—often talk about who has “sexual access” to a woman within the legal system of the culture. The default view of modern Western culture is that a woman can have sex with whoever she wants—though it is generally looked down upon for someone in an active relationship to have sex with someone other than their partner without consent. The default view of many non-Western cultures today (and of Western culture throughout most of its history), by contrast, is that there are clear limits on who a woman’s prospective sexual partners could be. Boaz alludes in this passage to the system called Levirate marriage (or to something like that system). The main point of relevance here is that, once a woman married into a particular family, the potential pool of future mates, in the event her husband died, was limited to specified kinsman of her husband. Who has “sexual access” to a woman is spelled out in the laws and customs of the culture. 

This whole way of thinking is rather foreign to us, but it is important in this text. By pointing to the other kinsman, Boaz is effectively saying that regardless of his or Ruth’s intentions, he does not have the right to sexual access at this point. For that to happen, he must first develop the clever legal scheme at the gate in chapter 4.


While the text itself does not come out and answer the question whether Ruth and Boaz “did” anything at the threshing floor, the hints in the text point to them sharing a chaste night. Both are cast as responding differently from their ancestors in Genesis. Rather than turning to sexual manipulation to get what they desire, they turn to talking, sharing dignity, and concern for what is proper under the law. In other words, both Ruth and Boaz reject sexual manipulation as the path to follow and engage in redemption. They redeem humanity one little bit from the well-trodden path of sexual trickery.

Against this backdrop, we can make some sense of why Boaz tells Ruth to lay back down rather than go home for the night. Now that they have worked out an appropriate way to relate to each other, the threat of something going wrong is much reduced. However, if Ruth is seen or caught making the journey back home in the dark, there could be major problems. At least if she is traveling home in the morning with grain, she can plausibly pass herself off as an industrious worker out and about early.

The threshing floor and today

Following this line of thinking, we are in position to let this text speak an appropriate word of judgment into our current life. Sexual manipulation and trickery are rampant today.

One thinks immediately of the #MeToo movement. #MeToo has brought to public light how pervasive sexual abuse. In answering the question, “who has sexual access to a woman,” many people answer “anyone with the power to take it.” The prevailing message in porn says the same thing: sex is about men taking what they want from women. By contrast, Boaz stands up in this story with a word of rebuke to our culture. Boaz’s question “who is it?” proves the noble and necessary response to the world of #MeToo and rampant pornography. This question, set within the bigger story of Scripture, shows awareness that the power and ability to take sexual access is different from the right to do so.

Ruth’s approach to the situation is admirable as well. The image of a woman using her sexuality to get what she wants is deeply engrained in Western popular culture: movies, TV, music, etc. Sexuality is considered a form of power to use in securing a desired end. Whether that end is the personal attention which the “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” philosophy of life seeks, or other goals, it makes no matter. Rather than try to manipulate Boaz with her sexuality, Ruth is open about her identity and her aims, trusting Boaz to act.

In the historical particulars, it would be foolish to try to reenact a Ruth and Boaz at the threshing floor kind of evening. However, read within the bigger story of Scripture, it sounds a welcome message for us today: sexual manipulation need not be the way to get what we want. The virtuous and upright choices of Ruth and Boaz lead to blessings and provision from God. By contrast, the stories of sexual manipulation—both in the Bible and again and again ever sense—are shot through and through with destruction and heart ache. There is a better way to walk. Ruth and Boaz model it.