You Can’t Induce Desire, Or Are We Slaves To Jesus?

Recently I caught the tail end of a radio program by John MacArthur, an evangelical pastor near San Diego (I’ve actually visited his church years ago, I was surprised to find people in Mennonite-ish clothing in Southern California). After he polished off his sermon he inserted a promo for what he claimed is the most important book he’s ever written (noteworthy because he’s written well over 50).

The promo claimed he’d found a startling truth that shattered his understanding of Christianity – that a Greek word traditionally translated as servant in the New Testament should only be translated as slave. Instead of seeing ourselves as servants, MacArthur suggets we should see ourselves as slaves to Jesus. He even claims it’s a cover-up that all of the English translators made this switch*.

Yes I’m making the now classic mistake of analyzing a book by it’s promo (I have no immediate plans to read the book). MacArthur is suggesting that we need a monumental shift in our identity as Christians, as the difference is not a subtle one. 

I don’t doubt he’s right about the Greek. I’m no scholar. But it screams of legalistic, unintentionally manipulative religion at it’s best.

It brings up some complicated questions: Are we indebted to Jesus, or is his gift grace? Are we obligated to him because of what he’s done for us? Or are we free? Do we belong to God in a possessive way or in a paternal/relational way? (feel free to answer those questions in the comments!)

How can we be free slaves to God?

Ultimately I don’t think there’s any good way of getting Christians to see that they should be slaves. You can’t tell them what they should be – it has little power to make them what they should be. Instead I think it’s up to individual person to move toward’s seeing themselves as a slave. I think they had to reach that conclusion on their own.

You can’t tell someone they should be a slave to Jesus. They have to want to be one. They are so moved by Jesus and his sacrificial love that they want to be his slave. And so this could be the fatal error MacArthur makes – by telling people what they should be he could help capture them in the chinese-finger-trap world of legalism and religious bondage.

What do you think it means to be a slave to Jesus? Does the phrase sound a bit odd to you? What are it’s implications? 

*This isn’t totally fair, as he suspects some translators changed it because of the connotation the word slave has today – likely quite different from the ancient Jewish understanding.

Tiptoeing Around The Believers, Or Balancing The Scales

I’m out of town this whole week, so I’ve scheduled a few posts. If this is your first time here when I’m on vacation I polish off the posts stalled in draft-land and offer them as b-sides. I will likely not be able to reply to comments til the end of the month. 

A little while into my job search now, I’ve begun to consider just about everything possible I could do for income. Included in that brainstorming has been applying to work for a church.

It didn’t take me long to realize just how horrible I’d be at church work – I’d dismantle all the programs, try to ask questions and spark discussion during the Sunday sermon, and I’d loan out questionable books to parishioners. Not to mention when this blog would be discovered by the members I’d be ousted for sure.

I read a few blogs by pastors and other church workers, and when I do get this feeling that they’re restrained. They can’t really write everything they want to – if they say any number of things or align themselves with any number of causes that may differ from their flock they’ll be in hot water. They have to watch what they say. It’s almost as if they’re allowed to write Our Daily Bread style stuff but aren’t entitled to any opinions on any current issues (because that’s possible!) – for fear of choosing incorrectly.

This got me thinking about the dynamic between the pastor and the people. The pastor is of course there to serve the people, but does that mean he/she can only say people-pleasing things? That’s certainly not a healthy church. The people need the pastor to lead – meaning the people need the pastor to pull them forward into uncomfortable places. They need him to be the vision, to see when it’s foggy.

Should we be like one of these? Full steam ahead?

So which is it? Does the pastor cater to the people or does he constantly push them out into rush hour traffic?

What I’m finding more and more is that this isn’t an answer a) or answer b) . The answer almost always lies in between, somewhere foggy enough that both answers blur into one.

In college I kept coming back to this idea that everything is a balance and my youth leader said “be careful – I know plenty of people who say that’s where the devil wants you – not going for either hot or cold but luke warm.” It’s that mentality of there is no balanced Christian life – you just charge full steam ahead and love extremely. We are supposed to be over the top.

So what do you think – do you think our faith is more of a balance or a foray into the extreme?

Prayer Is Like A Tree Growing in Systematic Theology, Or Eat My Mysticism

My job ends this week. Thursday morning I’ll be unemployed. Not really, as I’ve been working a part time job in addition to my full time gig for well over a year – but the part time gig won’t pay the mortgage.

I just applied for a great job. It pays considerably more than I earn now, is far more steady than the field I’ve been working in for 7 years, and I know two people who either have held the same position or still do who can recommend me. And in this economy – in this town – it really is all about connections. And so I’m desperately hoping.

Many of you in the comments to my post announcing I was losing my job said you were praying. Thank you. Truly. You’ve never met me and yet you’re praying. That’s 8 shades of beautiful.

I wonder about prayer. I wonder why we pray for things that are out of God’s control. Of course some say “WHAT?! God is in control!” But he doesn’t control people. God doesn’t use the HR person as a puppet to pick who God wants for the job. The HR person is going to pick who they will pick. I suppose God could EASILY control the HR person but in my opinion God has chosen against taking control over his people.

And yet I believe in prayer. Could I write a systematic theology paper on prayer? Absolutely not, it would sound more like a Psalm. I don’t know how well we can break down prayer –  it really is this mystical thing, much to the dismay of the Calvinists.

So all that to say – thank you. I don’t know what it will do, but thank you for doing it.

(by the way I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of my blog post title. I’m self proclaiming myself a genius.)

Being a Buzzkill, Or Run That Race Just a Bit Slower

In the Christian blogosphere, people tend to blog mini Bible studies or explain concepts as if it were a class. I have no problem with that, it’s just not what I do here. Especially lately and with this post – as by putting this out there I’m making myself vulnerable to be picked apart and denounced. But I do it so I can hear from you, as what I’m posting is pretty experimental and I don’t claim to have all the answers.

When my wife and I were dating she worked out of town every other week for 8 days straight. We had limited cell phone contact (once a day for 5 minutes or so) and we were very much so in love, so I wrote her six page letters twice those weeks. Pure sap. Just oozing with it. And she ate ‘em up.

We haven’t been married long, but long enough that we aren’t in that honeymoon phase anymore. I tend to only write letters now when I hurt her. We of course love each other, but it’s not so urgent and in your face. We’re used to each other.

When it comes to Christianity, we spend a lot of time trying to keep people in that honeymoon phase with Jesus. I’d go as far as suggesting this is partially behind Sunday morning sermons, gobs of Christian books and weekend retreats or conferences. We want people to re-acquire that burning fire they once had with Jesus.

There’s a great line in song by Earthsuit “youth camp junkies don’t get enough to make the buzz last.” We try to get people high on Jesus and to be honeymooners again.

This may sound like total heresy  – but what if this is a misguided goal?

“What?! I’m not supposed to be crazy in love with Jesus all the time? Shouldn’t I just be mad with him all the time?”

(I’m already envisioning my comments, and they’re not good. I haven’t heard the term sacreligious in a while.)

I’m wondering if maybe our love for him is to be more like love for a husband or wife – where it’s okay to not be burning with heated passion all the time, but we have a love that is more permeated through the whole heart.

You often hear of Christians reflecting on their early, zealous years. Most even out and settle down some, running the race at a more sustained pace. And, I think, that’s okay.

I work in a field where burn out is high – it’s unrealistic that I’ll still be a counselor in 20 years.  One of the main reasons cited is simply going too hard. Lots of people enter the field wide-eyed and ready to change the world. Those “types” are of the first to be bitter and to leave.

So maybe we need to stop expecting Christians to be running around on fire all the time, and maybe we need to not perpetuate this idea so some people can be honest. Many may be afraid to admit they’ve lost that red hot drive and fear admitting as it could imply losing God and his (salvation) blessing too.

Give it to me straight. Though Jesus refers to us as his bride, is this where the parallels to marriage don’t apply?

Uh, What Is The Kingdom of God For Real, Or I Should Really Know This By Now

I think the Kingdom of God is the most misunderstood concept in all of Scripture. I say this not as someone who’s figured it out and is watching everyone else get it terribly wrong – but as someone who still isn’t totally clear on the matter… It’s still misunderstood by me! And not for lack of research.

I think the majority of evangelical Christians assume that when Jesus mentioned the Kingdom of God (or Heaven) he was referring to just heaven – the place where Christians go after death. It’s a fair assumption to make based on language alone, one I believed for 20 years, but I don’t think it’s accurate (at all).

To me Jesus didn’t not equate the Kingdom with the (good) eternal afterlife. When trying to explain the Kingdom Jesus relied on metaphors. He compared it to yeast permeating all of the flour or a tiny mustard seed becoming an enormous tree – it doesn’t sound like just eternity to me (how can heavenly afterlife grow?!).

I don’t know how the preacher made that metaphor work with life after death, but well done sir.

After that I began to understand “ooh heaven is a place on earth.” Not totally, that was just for fun. The Kingdom of God can be a reality here and now (as opposed to later) if we see it and we make it happen.

That’s why Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, announced the kingdom of heaven was being fulfilled right then. And so I thought that Kingdom could be spread from place to place (I often use the wildfire metaphor – one tree on fire catches another tree). But then I happened upon Luke 17, where Jesus says “nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” So that idea lost some ground.

I still can’t quite grasp what exactly Jesus is talking about. This makes me doubt my own faith, truth be told, because the Kingdom of God seems to be a defining concept in the Gospels – so why can’t I really “get” it?

So here is my best stab at it right now. Maybe the best description of the Kingdom is simply our earth put back together. Because to me God is putting his world and his people back together – he’s restoring the goodness he first made. That doesn’t really clear it up I realize, and yet from all of my research it’s the best way I can sum it up – the kingdom is our world being pieced back to the way it was made. As the world is put back together the process sort of perpetuates itself (wildfire-like). But, as Jesus said, this doesn’t happen in physical locations – but in your own heart.

I can see why Jesus spoke about in an artistic fashion, and not a dogmatic one. By speaking of it poetically and metaphorically it allows you to be understand and experience the Kingdom, as for me it’s something that can be explained systematically.

How would you explain the Kingdom of God? Could you please? I really am open to hearing other ways.

Are Christians Permitted To Be Happy, Or Is It All Business?

(Please note the inadvertent sharp contrast between yesterday’s post on how difficult it is to get through life on earth sane and today’s post. I didn’t plan it this way and I’m not sure what it means.)

I live where people go on holiday (that makes me sound so European). We even sell bumper stickers that say “my life is better than your vacation.” Chances are the mountains twenty miles from my house are July’s photo on the calender hanging in your kitchen. When we discuss the weather, it’s not small talk to break the ice in a conversation but to actually seek information on the powder conditions (and what it’s water content percentage is.) Skiing, mountain biking and kayaking are apart of the regular routine round here. We are a recreational bunch, and as such we have a high life satisfaction.

We asked a question recently in my community group – can Christians be happy? Not like is it possible, but is it permissible for us to enjoy our lives? It may sound like a silly question, but I think it’s worth exploring (and note I’m referring to something different from the joy that comes from the Lord). In Christianity we talk a lot about going into the dark places of our world and living your life for others, and quite frankly you can convince yourself that God doesn’t want you to be happy – that he made you for higher, holier things. Our earthly pleasure can seem very primal and dirty and hedonistic.

I don’t have a solid answer to harmonize the tension, but I do think we can get some clues by looking at our origins. Why did God bother to dream up and create this world and populate it with little soul bodies? We can give the true yet still obligatory pious answer of “to bring glory to himself,” but I don’t think that’s all there is. Hope that doesn’t make me sound like a bad Christian. I think ultimately we were created to enjoy the lives that God has given us. If you can imagine yourself in the Garden of Eden and receiving the freshly created land from God – I think you’d know that it was given as a gift to be enjoyed.

Am I’m not asking is it okay for me to go skiing this weekend. Of course it is, and even if you told me I must deny myself of all pleasures (especially in Lent!) I’ll still go because the powder has been low water content lately and ripe for spraying. But there seems to be a fine line somewhere between partaking in life’s pleasures and living a servant’s life.

I ask this hoping you have some insight – so swing away!

Bringing Your Nails To Book Club, Or That Ever Elusive Line

An ultra super rare special Monday edition of Charlie’s Church of Christ!!!

Rob Bell has likely been in your church. Probably not physically – he isn’t a big traveler save a few speaking tours (and he usually toured clubs), but he’s been in your church through his Nooma videos. This may be alarming to some, as he’s portrayed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His books set off minor firestorms, and his next one has set another one off a month before it’s release. Any press is good press?

I’ve noticed for years that Rob has seemingly flirted with or covertly pointed to something like universalism, and his new book is all about who’s in and who’s out of heaven. Speculation abounds that it’s his coming out of the closest on his true stance.

This post is not a promo. Nor is it a test.

(Please note this post is not about universalism, I’m merely using it to make an entirely different point.)

Watchdogs, who make their careers out of picking on people like Rob Bell, will have all the fuel they’ll ever need from this book. Previously they’ve nailed him a heretic on minor differences – but arguing in favor of a wider gate into heaven will leave Rob branded with all sorts of labels. Some will consider him outside of the Christian circle and will make claims against his salvation.

This is a question I ask often – so, where is the line?

If he is a Christian who believes in universalism – does he lose a spot as one of our brothers? Does this un-save him? At what point does someone lose it? Where is that line drawn?

I’m not slowly building up until I give you my answer, I am legitimately asking where this line is, what issues its drawn around.

My uncle once told me of seven points of theology you have to affirm even with a gun to your head or you’re hell-bound. If deny even one, he could not guarantee you are saved.

Obviously there are a variety of denominations and versions of belief out there – and if you imagine a concentric circle with the “most right” group in the center and each one going out is a less less “right” – where does one cease being one of the brethren? What is it that excludes someone?

Or maybe, Christians could afford to spend a little less time drawing lines in order to define and/or keep people out.

In your opinion, where is the line of who’s in and who’s out? Where does someone lose “it?”