Not a Troll (Perhaps a Hobbit)

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

We live in the age of trolls. The internet allows us to maintain a certain level of detachment, so we go for it. We noisily air our opinions and blast those who dare to disagree. Through the relative anonymity afforded by the keyboard, we say the words that may never actually vibrate in our vocal chords and exit through our lips. We demand, cajole, proclaim the things that we may never actually have the courage to say out loud.

Am I one of those trolls, those vaunted keyboard warriors?

Why do I write about politics? Theology? Mental and physical illness? Why do I write about the things that make you angry? Why do I fail to adopt a soothing, socially-acceptable voice? Why do I persist in making you uncomfortable?

Because I care.

A lot.

I may not cry often, but I am incredibly passionate. I am tenderhearted. If I write about something that makes you squirm, I don’t do so for the sake of making you squirm. I do it because I can’t stand what’s passing for Christian teaching and living throughout our country. Of course that’s generalized. Of course there are people who are doing their absolute best to love God and others. Still, the overall trends toward prioritizing temporal power over Gospel preaching and fluffy, gunky, crap “doctrine” over thoughtful doctrine and study…ugh! Blergh! Argh!

Cue Darth Vader:

For real. Sometimes I want to tear my hair out.

Sharon Hodde Miller says it best:

The pressure to be nice competes with the calling to be prophetic. … For every article about making money with your blog, or having a better marriage, we need leaders who are leveraging their authority with their particular audience to call people to rugged faithfulness. We need teachers who are targeting the idols of people-pleasing and politics and worldly success, and helping us to be the actual people of God. And we need pastors engaged in the kind of spiritual formation that resists cultural influence, and prepares believers for loving self-sacrifice.

Last year Brueggemann summarized our prophetic failing this way: “I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic, U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 3).

…we are witnessing the fruit of inadequate spiritual formation. When our spiritual formation winks at, or embraces, cultural idols, we will produce individuals who are totally unable to resist the culture. That is why we are in dire need of prophetic leaders with the courage and clarity to name our adulterous loves. It’s hard work, and humble work (since ranting should not be confused with prophetic teaching), but we need it now as much as ever.

No, I’m not saying I’m a prophet (and neither is Miller). “Prophetic” here is used in a way that points to challenging the status quo because it needs to be challenged. It’s John the Baptist in his camel-hair dress shouting, “Repent!” in the wilderness. It’s Jesus quietly telling the woman at the well that He is indeed Messiah. It’s Ananias taking his life in his hands and approaching Paul, who’s just been knocked off his donkey and struck blind. It’s thousands of men and women around the world today who dare to praise God in cultures that would see them dead for it.

I love you, dear reader. I do. Again, perhaps not in a way that you would quickly recognize. If we were to meet, I probably wouldn’t give you a big hug. I might ask you some random, weird question about your favorite historical era because I’m awkward like that. But I want so much, so desperately much, for you to know Jesus. I want you to really follow Him, even if it costs you something – and it will. I want you to embrace the cost, knowing that this life is but a breath and far greater things are up ahead.

I’m not perfect. I don’t always get this right. I have, in no way, “arrived.” I’m right there in the middle of this thing with you, tugging your elbow, hoping you’ll tug mine when I get distracted by the shiny stuff. Because we all get distracted. And that’s why we need the gruff voices, the ones that don’t fit into neat boxes, to call us back and keep us moving forward.

There’s a time for gentleness and a time for bluntness. The one is not more loving than the other. James wrote some harsh things in his epistle, but he was not uncaring. He was not mean. He wrote them because he loved his readers. He wanted the very best for them.

If you are challenged by me (or others), if you find yourself clicking away from this site (or others) because you feel anger, pause for a moment. Take a step back. Getting your toes smashed is never fun (I’ve had mine stomped on plenty of times), but it’s often necessary. Let’s learn to accept that discomfort. Let’s learn to sit with things that challenge us. Let’s learn to listen to the hoarse voices.

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God’s Heart

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Gentle Reader,

The Lord is up to something.

I have to share something SO COOL with you. Last night, I was reading the Flood account (Gen. 6 – 9), a very familiar sequence to most of us. God tells Noah to build the ark (I’m sure that Noah had lots of questions – What’s an ark? What’s rain?), Noah spends a long time doing so, two of every animal appears, the family sets up housekeeping inside the ark, the rains come and everyone waits. And waits. And waits some more. (I’d like to know how Mrs. Noah and her daughter’s-in-law dealt with each other during all that waiting).

Pretty straightforward stuff, particularly if you went to Sunday School as a kid, like I did. Ah!, but God is full of surprises and His Word is full of ever-deepening treasures. I have discovered that I can read something multiple times and a new facet of the passage will suddenly pop out at me just when I think I can’t learn anything new. Here’s what got me:

Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying: “And as for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, of all that go out of the ark, every beast of the earth. Thus I establish My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

And God said: “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”And God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.” -Genesis 8:8-17 (NKJV)

Did you catch it?

God made a covenant not only with Noah, but with every living creature.

We humans occupy a special place. God gave us obvious abilities of reasoning, communication, imagination, creativity. We reflect something of His image and He invites us into relationship with Him through Jesus. Therefore, that He should make this covenant with Noah seems logical, even a little businesslike. For God to make this covenant also with the animals, with ones who suffer and groan (Rom. 8) due to the curse that they live under because of us reveals to me a whole new space of tenderness in the heart of God that I had never before considered.

He cares. About everything. It’s true that nothing escapes His notice (Lk. 12:6-7). When He says He has good plans for me and you (Jer. 29:11), He utterly means it.

But sin gets in the way.

How do we fit together God’s promise of goodness with that reality?

I love how the Lord so often sets me up. My excitement over this passage and the encouragement I found in the reminder of His care spilled over into today, starting me off with a uniquely positive attitude. (I am not, in any way, a morning person). I believe that this attitude, this buoyant hope in His love, was used of the Spirit to open my ears.

Sitting at my work station, I had the privilege of being able to listen to several of the Passion 2013 conference messages while I worked my way through some extremely boring reports. Gary Haugen, President and CEO of International Justice Mission, was one of the featured speakers. His initiation into human rights advocacy came via working for the National Institution for Reconciliation in South Africa, during the years of apartheid. Since then, he has spent his time working to free victims of oppression and modern-day slavery, including serving with the United Nations Center for Human Rights during the investigation into the Rwandan genocide.

He spoke women crippled in brick factories, forced to carry loads of 70 pounds or more on their heads. He told of men forced into domestic servitude. He related stories of very young children sold to evil men and women who sadistically rape them.

Haugen said that people often ask when God is when confronted with the reality of 27 million human beings – real, live people – living as though dead each day. He wonders where the people of God are.

The answer to that question is how we grapple with God’s promise of goodness and the reality of sin.

Evil is real. It’s all around us every single day. Those of us within whom the Spirit dwells are, hopefully, growing more sensitive to it. With that sensitivity comes responsibility. We can’t turn a blind eye to this nightmare. Nor do we have to be overwhelmed by it.

God cares. Nothing escapes His notice. Evil isn’t going to win (Rev. 21). We can be confident of all these things. Because of this confidence, we can act.

Standing up for the voiceless and oppressed takes many forms – donating money, prayer, lobbying elected officials, researching for and buying fair trade, reporting suspicious activity to authorities, working for an advocacy group, being quick to make amends when we lash out at others. I don’t know what this will look like for you and I’m certainly not going to try and guilt-trip you into doing anything. All I ask is that you remember the covenant that God made with all of creation. He loves. He can do no less.

As His beloved and redeemed, neither can we.

My journey to faith. (15)

What’s Wrong With Me (and Possibly You)

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Gentle Reader,

This morning, I had an epiphany.

For the last several weeks I’ve grown increasingly frustrated. In the last two years I have gone through the loss of all of the “official” areas of ministry in which I was involved. Two women’s Bible study groups, a book discussion group, a church library project and board position.

Vaporized.

Most of the time I know that each of these losses has been intended for God’s glory and for my good, but there are more and more days lately when I just can’t stand it. I look at my husband, at his involvement with our church, and I actually feel jealous. I never thought I’d feel that way toward my spouse! But, yes, jealous. He’s in the worship band. He teaches the pre-schoolers. He leads a men’s Bible study group. He rocks babies in the nursery. He’s the “go to” guy while I sit and wonder if anyone would miss me if I just stopped attending services.

Now, I love my husband. I don’t begrudge him a single one of those activities. His increased activity is, I believe, ordained, just as my stillness is. Trouble is, I’ve had it drilled into my brain for so many years that a “good” Christian serves, and I worry that I’m slipping out of God’s favor. Or that I’m useless.

Chris and I were joking around about something as we each got ready for work this morning. I wish I could remember the context, but he eventually said, very seriously, “You would not be a good manager.” I agreed without hesitation. When I am at work, my focus is on the task. I like my coworkers (most days) and don’t usually have too much trouble interacting with them, but they are not the priority for me. I am kind, but would prefer to be uninterrupted when in the middle of a project.

I don’t like chit-chat. I don’t like wasting time. If there were a word strong enough to convey my hatred of meetings, I’d use that here. The very idea of managing people, of dealing with interpersonal conflicts and ensuring that everyone feels equally valued, makes me want to pull my hair out. I have a good work ethic and will do whatever is asked of me, but don’t make me part of your Human Resources team.

All day long, I pondered the stark truth of my lack of managerial skills. Then, the epiphany.

I have been frustrated in ministry, in finding my place and role within the Body, because I’ve been trying to do something that I’m not equipped to do. Take, for example, leading a Bible study group. If I sense apathy among the attendees, I have no desire to teach the lesson I’ve spent hours on. Instead of a joy, it has become a waste of time. Another pointless meeting. I resent the people I’m supposed to be loving and reaching out to.

This makes me think that there really is such a thing as a “people person.” Yes, yes, God wants us to love everyone. But must we all love the same? Chris never meets a stranger. He’s comfortable in just about any situation. He can converse on any matter of subjects and people feel at ease around him. Where he relishes going to a party, I often dread it.

So, I wonder if there is some way to use the abilities and the passions that God has given me in an “outside-the-box” sort of way. Is it loving to clean the sanctuary so that people are comfortable on Sunday morning? To create an attractive bulletin? To think long and hard about an encouraging word or Scripture passage to write in a card and send to a friend in need?

I’m starting to think so.

I’ll go even farther with this and confess that I limit God. I think we all do. We assume that serving Him means that we must be a great speaker or an amazing singer or at least the guy who operates the Power Point. But who blesses the speaker and the singer? Isn’t the person who brings the water bottler or the cup of coffee just as vital as the preacher or the worship leader?

This is quite embarrassing, for the idea of each person and each way of serving being deeply important should not be so revolutionary to me. I’ve read the passages. I’ve heard the sermon. I’ve got the theology degree. For whatever reason, I never really understood. Today the curtain is peeled back a little.

My journey to faith. (15)

Sola What?: A Few Hundred Years of History

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This post was edited July 14, 2014. Edits appear in red italics.

Gentle Reader,

What divides Catholic and Protestant? (Note: the Orthodox are also separate from Catholics and Protestants. I, however, freely admit my overall ignorance of Orthodox belief and practice. Our focus will be on the issues of the Reformation). In our ecumenical age, this may seem an unimportant question. Surely it is only a few minor points of doctrine that keep the camps separate. Surely it is possible to bring healing to the people of God.

I do believe that a greater degree of harmony is a realistic goal for the Church. (1) Many issues don’t need to be issues at all. However, when assessing the differences between the predominate streams of Christianity, it is important to understand that there are real and true divergences in theology. Anyone who is serious about faith needs to take the time to sort this out. It is important to know what one believes and why. It is also important to know what one does not believe and why.

Before we go any further, I want to be clear that we will not be engaging in Catholic-bashing. If you want to do that, go elsewhere. The Sola What? series is predominately about examining the Five Solas of the Protestant movement as a whole, along with a look at a few denominationally-specific stances. What do Protestants claim to believe? Do these claimed beliefs make sense in light of Scripture, reason, experience and tradition? This is where we are going.

How to lay the groundwork for this discussion? First, some definitions:

Reformation: the action or process of reforming (making changes in) an institution or practice.

Counter-Reformation: attempts by the Catholic church and secular Catholic authorities to stem the flow of Protestantism and reform some of the worst excesses of medieval Catholicism. (2)

Sola: by oneself, alone.

And yet, definitions do not go far enough:

Reformation and Counter-Reformation are not terms which we can easily dispense with and yet they are deceptive. . .’Reform’ was a familiar word long before 1500, even a cliche. . .It is meaningless, or at least unhistorical, to discuss where this or that tendency or event was properly part of the Reformation… (3)

The Reformation was not termed as such until the late 17th century, long after most of the momentous events had taken place. This is not as simple as “the Catholic Church was bad and Martin Luther showed people the truth.” Rather, the movement was

a complex extended historical process, going well beyond the endeavours of man or one tendency, and involving social, political and wider religious issues. (4)

Consider that the Reformation occurred just as nationalism was on the rise. No longer did people see themselves as part of a larger body, that of European Christendom. Instead, being “German” or “English” or “French” became important. With the exploding publishing industry, thanks to Gutenberg and his movable type, literacy was on the rise. Europe’s population, decimated approximately 150 years earlier by plague, had begun to stabilize. We cannot isolate Luther, the 95 Theses, indulgences or any other part of the movement from these factors.

Would the Reformation as we know it have occurred without these historical conditions? Maybe, maybe not. I simply find it important to look at what was happening around the Reformers. Furthermore, it is important to realize that, because the word “reform” had become cliche, that the Reformers proper were part of a lengthier tradition. When we assume that Luther, Zwingli, Arminius and the rest of the bunch were first in a thousand years to discover grace, faith and the authority of Scripture, we forget about those who had gone before. We also expose a fatal assumption, namely that nobody was saved between the Edict of Milan in 313, when the Roman emperor Constantine began the shift that would lead toward Christianity become the official religion of the Empire in 380 under Theodosius I, and 1517, when Luther wrote and nailed the famous Theses. This train of thought is one that we need to do our best to avoid.

That being said, there were real problems in the medieval Catholic Church. A quick look at the lives of a few Popes, the state of rural parishes and the differences between official and folk religion makes this more than apparent. The famous polarizing issue of the Reformation, indulgences, serves as an example:

“As a penny in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs,” or so the Dominican friar Tetzel and other purveyors of papal pardons are supposed to have taught their hearers and customers. (5)

Pope Leo X (of the infamous Medici family) was in the midst of reconstructing St. Peter’s Basilica and needed money. He chose to grant indulgences, the full or partial remission of temporal [relating to the world] punishment of sins, (6) to those who chose to donate to the project. Basically, anyone could pay to get loved ones out of Purgatory and into Heaven. Thus indulgences open up a whole host of questions: Is Purgatory real? It is not mentioned in Scripture, but is alluded to in 2 Maccabees 12:46, a deuterocanonical book not contained in the Hebrew Bible, which forces us to consider how the Catholic Church arrived at their canon of Scripture. If it’s not in the Bible, can the Catholic Church teach that it’s real? This opens up huge questions about tradition versus Scripture. Who atones for sin? Is it Christ? Is it Christ but also the individual after going through Purgatory? Is it Christ, the individual going through Purgatory and then another person who pays for the sentence of Purgatory to be reduced? On and on it goes; this was the proverbial “can of worms.” 

Please note here that Luther was not alone in his disgust over this practice. Many voices who remained within the Catholic Church during the Reformation spoke in favor of addressing these problems. The Reformation is not a tidy, “us versus them” moment in history. But then, few are.

The troubles lay not only with the Catholic Church, however. That the English Reformation came about largely as a matter of the king’s needing a son is well-known. Anne Boleyn, so often revered as one of the key players in the English Reformation, was one of two parties responsible for breaking up a marriage, which is a sin. (The other being Henry VIII, the king of the famous “tender conscience”). That fact remains largely untouched when discussions of the Reformation arise. There are other incidents that rub the gleam off. Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian and physician, was burned at the stake by the Geneva Council for his non-Trinitarian and anti-infant baptism views. Certainly Servetus should be defined as a heretic for his Oneness teachings, but I wonder how many today, who pride themselves on being Protestant, realize that their views on baptism come not from the Reformers at all. At any rate, burning him at the stake seems excessive, does it not? Martin Luther grew decidedly anti-Semitic, lamenting the failure of European national powers to drive the Jews out of their borders. Riots and war broke out in the city of Munster as radical, millenialist Anabaptists (sometimes “re-baptizers,” or those who believed only adults could be rightly baptized) tried to establish a theocracy.

Again, the Reformation was not neat and tidy. What could have been a deeply cleansing moment for the Church became its bloodiest civil war, a war that rages to this day. And it is true: one of the legacies of the Reformation, one that the Reformers themselves would not have approved, is the continual shattering of churches. Denominations, non-denominations, groups without name and home churches, all of whom may well vary only slightly – and fight to the death on those variances. This is not what the Reformation was about. No Reformer worth his salt would ever advocate the splitting of congregations over things like Bible translation or carpet color.

We have, of course, barely skimmed the surface of a deep and complex period of history that is still being played out. More than a few thick books have been written on the Reformation, Luther, Calvin, TULIP, the Arminian Remonstrance, the Anabaptists and a host of other peoples and topics. It is beyond the scope of this post to hold up every personality or thought for careful scrutiny. The bottom line is that the Reformers were not all saints and the Counter-Reformers were not all sinners. There were problems and there were not problems that got turned into problems.

In my desire to engage in the history cautiously, and to avoid projecting modern ways of thinking onto Renaissance men and women, I do not want to minimize the issues at play. They are very real and there were (and are) souls at stake. Over centuries and very gradually, the Catholic Church sullied the waters of pure doctrine with additions that directly contradict the teaching found in the Bible. Rome does teach another gospel, a gospel that never came from the mouth of Christ or the Apostles. In that, I stand firmly on the side of Protestantism.

As I work on the remainder of this series, I want to treat you, dear reader, with respect. If you are Catholic, you need not be afraid to come here. I will not be calling you names. I simply want everyone and anyone who comes across my writing to be presented with the true message of the Gospel: Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). The only way to know and understand that Gospel is to approach Scripture to with an open heart and an open mind, with a willingness to allow the Word of God to strip away any false beliefs.

With that, I wish you,

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the Sola What? series, go here.

References:

1 “Church” will be used throughout this series to describe the universal body of believers. When necessary, I will use “Catholic,” “Lutheran,” “Anglican,” etc. to describe distinct groups.

http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/the-english-civil-war-glossary.

3 Patrick Collinson. “The Late Medieval Church and Its Reformation.” The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, ed. by John McManners. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 235-36.

4 Ibid., 236.

5 Ibid., 244.

6 P. Toon. “Indulgences.” Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Wwalter A. Elwell. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 605.