From Hollow to Filled.

One of the alarming moments in my spiritual journey was when I discovered myself to be hollow.  I was empty on the inside.  If you were able to grab a spiritual microscope and take a look underneath the surface in my heart and soul, you wouldn't find anything.  I was an empty core.  Where there should've been compassion, you would have seen indifference.  Where there should've been hope, you would have seen cynicism.  Where there should've been a deep, loving concern for people around me, you would have seen suspicion, mistrust, and competitive rivalry, masking itself as other things.  

And what made all of this worse was that I was a pastor.  

The danger of spiritual leadership is that if we don't stay connected to Jesus we'll become hollow shells, going through the motions, doing the things we are expected to do, and playing out the cultural script that is handed to us.  We'll become manipulative mask-wearers doing whatever it takes to get what we want.  Our ultimate goal will become satisfying whatever desire we have that is most prevalent, and we'll do whatever it takes to get it. We begin to view everyone around us as a means to an end—the end of satisfying our desire for power, achievement, love, a successful career or whatever.

Jesus taught his disciples that his relationship to them was like a vine to its branches.  The roots of a plant shoot themselves down into the soil in order to draw up the nutrients and life of the ground to distribute it to the branches.  Branches severed from the root quickly whither and die.

Staying connected to Jesus means cultivating a life of prayer.  It means investing in getting to know Jesus as if you were getting to know a close friend.  It means listening for his voice in your everyday life.  It means reimagining a "relationship" with him in really practical "friendship" type ways.

Simply put, it means keeping in touch with him.  We all have friends that we make it a priority to keep in touch with.  We call once a month, text regularly and check in with them when we're in town.  We consult them about major life decisions, we share meals with them, we invite them to our birthday parties.  We stay in touch.  It seems to me that staying connected to the Vine means keeping in touch with Christ, like we would a close friend.  

So let me ask: have you lost touch with Jesus?  To you long for your soul to have weight to it … to become someone with spiritual resilience and depth ?  Take some time to reconnect with God.  Catch up with him, find out what he's been up to and to catch him up with the secret struggles of your soul.  Only he is able to expose the hypocrisy of our hearts and to show us the better way of vulnerability and trust.  

Thankfully, Jesus is filling me again.  Through pruning and discipline, he's leading me back to the abundant life. But for me, this process has involved stripping me of every security and every measure of 'success' my culture would value.  As one author put it, "many of us will never know that Jesus is all we need until Jesus is all we have."  Until we're stripped of all the things we were running to for nourishment and food, we'll never discover what ultimately satisfies.

9 Reflections from a Pastor on Jordan Peterson

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In the summer of 2017 my cousin sent me a YouTube link from someone named Dr. Jordan Peterson, who at the time was a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. I popped my headphones in and listened to three hours of Biblical Series I: Introduction to the Idea of God. I’ll spare you the story of Jordan Peterson’s “meteoric rise” … go google it and read about him. Two things exploded him onto the public scene in the last two years: his interview with Cathy Newman, which David Brooks called “the most devastatingly one-sided media confrontation you will ever see,” and for singling out Canada’s C-16 Bill which mandated the use of gender-neutral pronouns as a protection for “gender identity and gender expression.” He has been called the most influential public intellectual in the world right now, with a bestselling book, 12 Rules For Life, that has sold 3 million copies worldwide.

I’ll admit, I followed the rabbit trail down further than I thought I would. I read 12 Rules for Life twice. I attended Jordan Peterson lecture with Dave Rubin in Kansas City, and even got a 12 Rules poster signed by Peterson, framed, and hung in my bathroom. I’ve watched hours of lectures on YouTube. How can a psychology professor and former therapist sell out theaters at $80 bucks a ticket across the globe? How come all of a sudden so many Christians are reading Jordan Peterson and talking about his ideas? What is it about his message that’s resonated with so many? While there are points at which I sharply disagree with Peterson, here’s why I think every thoughtful follower of Jesus should engage Peterson, and why I think his message has resounded so strongly in this cultural moment:

(1) Peterson offers a renewed vision for purposeful masculinity in an age that is agnostic about what it wants its men to be. Peterson’s message is hard-line, get your house in order, get your stuff together kind of message. Due to the rise of feminism, in many ways women have taken spaces in society that only men have occupied traditionally (a welcome change in many respects). Now, women actually surpass men in workplace participation. In today’s culture, men are berated and masculinity is often considered encouraging sexual predation, or an excuse for power-hungry beneficiaries of the patriarchy. We currently have a generation of young men confused about which space they ought to fill in society and where they ought to go to get meaning. Peterson’s message offers clear direction to young men to work on bettering themselves, becoming virtuous people, to leave the world a better place, and to do whatever it takes to bring order into the chaos. Today’s men are starving for such permission, and Peterson, with his decades of experience as a clinical psychologist and the deep compassion to say hard truths in a way that hits home.

(2) Peterson has adequately unmasked the malevolent nature of identity politics. In many talks, debates, and lectures, Peterson has warned of the dangers of the tendency to treat everyone as a member of a group, rather than as an individual. He has forcefully argued that one of the most dangerous things in Western culture right now is this tendency to assume that the most basic part of anyone’s identity is membership to an oppressed group. This kind of “identity politics” has created a climate where groups that perceive themselves as oppressed can wield their victimization against their perceived oppressors, silencing those who disagree with them by claiming that the only reason they disagree is because they are members of a privileged group that is trying to protect that privilege. Such posturing and framing of everything as “oppressed” vs. “oppressor” is reminiscent of the bourgeoisie/proletariat class struggles that led to the deaths of 50 million people in Soviet Russia in the 20th century. This kind of social deconstruction experiment has led to the total breakdown of reasonable discourse and constant name calling by members of the right and left. Peterson has articulately exposed the impracticality, the inherent wickedness, and the hatred of humanity that lurks underneath the identity-politics pretense of being a champion for the oppressed.

(3) Peterson’s offers moral clarity in a relativistic culture starved for it. In a recent conversation with a friend we were talking about the morality of JP. Our postmodern world has been starving for voices of moral clarity. Teachers of virtue if you will. The predominant assumption of our age regarding morality is that it is largely up to the individual to choose it for themselves. But Peterson, drawing from sources such as Dostoevsky, Solzeneitsyn, Goethe, and Neitzche, and the great literature of Western Civilization including the Old and New Testaments, Peterson offers moral clarity with an credibility that appeals to reason rather than to revelation (for example, at one point Peterson mentions that the best thing you can do for yourself if you want to stay out of poverty is to not have children out of wedlock) that goes deeper than the often seemingly arbitrary ways that Christian subculture has sought to teach virtue without the logical underpinnings of the way the world works.

(4) At the same time, he is surprisingly nihilistic. In Peterson’s world view, we are all going to die, so the best thing we can do is work hard and do our best to bring order into the chaos. There is very little hope in his prescriptions on living in the present, and such is implied in the direct encounter with the chaos of Being as Peterson would say it. In contrast, the Christian worldview invites us to live both for this life and the next, and to place our hope in the resurrection of Jesus.

(5) He tends to downplay the ‘historical’ nature of the Bible. Similar to the project of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” guys in the early part of the 20th century (like Albert Schweitzer and Rudolph Bultmann) who sought to eliminate all the miracles and supernatural claims of Scripture to get at the nugget of truth underneath, Peterson’s reading of the Bible, while extraordinarily interesting and fresh, seeks to get at the psychological meaning behind the stories. The important thing is NOT that they happened, but that they are important stories that have been repeated throughout all civilizations across history. The story of Adam and Eve, for example, is representative of humanity’s evolution towards ‘self-consciousness’ in the eating of the forbidden fruit. Such reading of the Bible, while interesting, is impossible for Christian to continue in for too long. Recognizing that there are multiple angles of interpretation of different passages, Christianity is unique amongst world religions in that it insists on the historical veracity of its main claims - namely - the resurrection of Jesus.

(6) JP is appealing because he gives hard truth over religious fluff. As a pastor, I often catch myself saying things to people and walking away thinking to myself “how does that really affect their lives?” In many ways I lament that evangelicalism has become largely unthinking and uncritical and has opted for pat answers and cliches when it comes to the pressing questions of life. But Peterson is a reminder of a moral voice that offers hard truths that have more teeth than the often metaphysical teachings of evangelicalism.

Reading Peterson has left me with some personal reflections as a pastor and a person of faith:

(7) I’m reminded of the importance of understanding sanctification. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” is Peterson’s first Rule for Life, illustrating his claim that in this world there are people on top and there are people on bottom. When confronted with the reality of the ‘pecking order’ of things, some people complain about it, some people bow out of the fight, but in light Jesus’ statement that “to those who have, more will be given,” as a Christian I need to seek first the Kingdom of God with all of my heart, and to get busy at living faithfully, speaking the truth in love no matter what the cost. Jesus did not just die to save us FROM our sins, but to save us FOR a life of good works. Paul says we are to “make every effort” to add to our faith goodness, knowledge, and self-control. Paul writes to Timothy that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” Further, our God is a God of order, who spoke order into chaos in an act of creation, and we created in his image ought always be seeking to leave a better world behind us, to speak something into the nothing.

(8) I’m reminded of the importance of “watching your life and doctrine closely.” (1 Tim. 4:16) I’m noticing that when there is a popular teacher or voice in culture, it is very easy to jump on the bandwagon, and to take that person’s ideas and subconsciously and uncritically embrace them. Especially someone like Jordan Peterson who is extraordinarily articulate, well-reasoned, and logically clear. We need to be like the Bereans, who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11)

(9) I’m hoping we can have some new voices in the Church that recover a lost vision for godly masculinity. JP’s popularity is a result of a vacuum of masculinity in our culture. In the 1990s there was a renewed interest in masculinity in the church with the golden years of Promise Keepers, and John Eldredge’s Braveheart, follow-your-desires masculinity in Wild At Heart, itself fraught with all sorts of problems. The craving for moral clarity in young men today is because of fatherlessness and a lack of ‘village elders’ willing to ‘tell it like it is’ to young men who have grown up without the manhood compass that comes from the presence of a father.

Why I'm Glad Green Book Won Best Picture.

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Although it was a little difficult to see our beloved Aragorn gain 130 pounds, Viggo Mortenson had me laughing out loud several times as an Italian blue-collar bodyguard / driver in last night’s Oscar winner for Best Picture Green Book. Following the win last night, criticisms immediately abounded, claiming Green Book was the “worst Best Picture winner since Crash in 2004,” with Spike Lee feeling slighted like he was court-side at Madison Square Garden when the referee made a bad call. Even the family members of the historical Dr. Don Shirley, the black classical pianist on whom the movie was based, called Green Book a “symphony of lies.” There then were the somewhat expected criticisms: reports of an oversimplified depiction of the complexity of Jim Crow segregation, accusations of “white savior” tropes, and even a claim that Green Book represents caricatures of past racism that allow white people to distance themselves from its ongoing reality. But criticisms aside, here’s why I loved Green Book:

It was a good movie. I don’t like that this needs to be said, but as Mahershala Ali said in a recent interview, while what constitutes an Oscar-worthy movie means something different than it meant in the 1980s or 90s, at the very least it needs to be a movie that people enjoy. Every great movie should be meaningful on some sort of deeper, moral level, but the main point of drama is to entertain. The script needs to hold together, the plot needs to have consistency, and the characters need to be meaningful and relatable. Green Book had all these things, but unlike other nominees, the writers kept in mind their audience, who did not come to the theater primarily to be preached at but to be entertained.

At the heart of every great movie is an incredible friendship. Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, is a classical pianist that lives in a penthouse apartment above Carnegie Hall (seriously, who lives above Carnegie Hall?!) who goes on a tour of the South. Due to security concerns traveling in pre-desegregated South, Don hires Tony “the Lip” Vallelonga to be his driver and ‘muscle.’ Throughout the course of the film, both characters’ prejudice of the Other are broken down, and by the end a great friendship has been forged. The underlying message seems to be that closeness, proximity, and presence not only reveal to us everyone we meet is hardly who we might think they are, but friendships marked by these always transform us as well. What makes this movie so compelling is that you as the viewer get to watch the gradual closeness and trust being built between Don and Tony Lip. By the end of the movie there’s a sense that ‘these guys are never going to be the same after this summer they spent touring together.’ If you’ve ever had a friendship like that in life that has totally transformed you, this movie will touch you on a deeply personal level. Could Dr. Shirley and Tony be the Frodo and Sam of 2019? I’ll show myself out…

It’s a reminder to respect the individuality of every person. There are voices on both sides of the political aisle out there right now that would like us to see everyone as a member of a group, not as individuals with particular stories and preferences, fears and prejudices. Green Book presents a subtle warning not to mainly consider people as a part of their group-identity but to respect their individuality. Tony discovers towards the beginning of the road trip that to his shock, Don has never listened to Aretha Franklin. In his mind “all black people” should know about Aretha, and should enjoy fried chicken.

Similarly, in the most powerful scene in the movie, Tony and Don are pulled over by police officers in a ‘sundown’ community and thrown into prison. Much to Tony’s surprise, Don makes a phone call the Attorney General of the US, who orders the governor to release them. Tony is shocked, but Don is completely humiliated. Tony argues with Don claiming that he is “darker” than Don, able to relate to ‘his people’ better than him. Don orders Tony to let him out of the car, and has reached his breaking point, claiming that his affluence prevents him from identifying with people from his own race, his race prevents him from being accepted by white people, and his homosexuality alienates him from all people. He angrily reveals the multiple layers of his loneliness and liminality in the world. We ought not assume that everyone is ‘like’ members of their own ‘group,’ whether racially, ideologically, interpersonally etc. The more curious and attentive we are to the people in front of us, the more we learn about their pain and discover them to be unique individuals.

We are definitely not in Gondor anymore, but this was a GREAT movie! What’d you think?

The Invincible Summer

This winter is dragging. Several snowstorms, cancelled plans due to weather, dreary days, ice crystalizing everything, and multiple power outages that leave houses 45* inside, have left me more than ready for the spring.

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Winter is a symbol of despair that is not unknown to the pages of human history and literature. Camus talked of the “invincible summer” within that always warmed the depths of his soul in the midst of winter. In the Ice Queen’s Narnia, in which it was “always winter, never Christmas,” the despair of the boreal tundra is never relieved by the anticipatory hope of the annual coming of Father Christmas. In Stephen King’s The Shining, the snow which beards the windows of the Overlook hotel is a symbol of the claustrophobia that drives Jack Torrance insane. Similarly, for John Snow and the Night Watch, winter is always coming, a reality against which a small band of ragged soldiers, sworn by a sacred oath, stand in resistance.

Winter for many, including myself, is a season of the soul that is dark, fruitless. It’s a time of forced inactivity. Everything outside dies—the trees, the grass, the flowers—and everything inside feels dead. According to the writer of Ecclesiastes, “there is a season for everything.” But what is this one for? Just as we bundle ourselves up in heated homes, sipping on constant warm drinks (the best part of winter) to stave off the chill, we find our souls similarly affected by this season of darkness.

The winter of the soul often involves loss, depression, failure, loneliness, and darkness. There are times in life where it just doesn’t seem living anymore. There’s that deep sadness that moves beyond mere seasonal affective melancholy. We wonder: is there any life left underneath this frosty heart of mine? It is unlike the summer of the soul, times of joy and accomplishment, of life-giving friendship and monumental crossings of life’s thresholds. Nor is like the springs of the soul - newness everywhere, new relationships, new opportunities peaking up through the once-frozen ground, and the birdsong of excitement and promise surrounding us all around.

Thankfully, the Scriptures are not silent with regards to the winters of the soul that are bound to come. Here’s some penetrating insights from the Bible to thaw our souls:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth…[for] the years approach when you will say ‘I find no pleasure in them.’ (Ecclesiastes 12:1) The writer of Ecclesiastes, in an existentially honest treatise about the seasonal nature of life makes it clear that dark days are coming. In the meantime, we are to always remember that we have a Creator who in grace and mercy allowed us to come into existence, and to whom we will one day have to give account. When the days become pleasureless, when all the good books, movies, trips, coffee (!), and adventures have lost their appeal, we are to reflect on theological reality that God exists, and our mortality demands we live before that Audience of One.

“Your waves and breakers have washed over me … I cry to you for help … why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88) In the winter of the soul, the Psalmist acknowledges a profound truth in the darkness. These waves that I’m being hit by in life are yours. Your waves! Our suffering and tragedy might just belong to the One who holds the universe in his hands, and there is something to learn, that perhaps the darkness is shaping us in ways only God can see. Christian author Mark Buchanan wrote of Psalm 88: “this Psalm allows us to break our silence about our agony when God refuses to break his.” We would do well to recover a faith, not just in the God who has specifically, brightly, decisively revealed his nature in the person of Jesus Christ, but also in the God who hides himself, the God of whom Job’s friend Zophar the Laamathite cried out “who can fathom the limits of the Almighty?” A God that we can figure out, who offers trite advice in the face of tragedy, is too small to be worshipped.

“they were kept from recognizing him…” These are the words that Luke, the Gospel writer, uses to tell of two travelers, downcast and depressed on the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion and death of Jesus, the one on whom they had previously placed their now-shattered hope. Their hopes defeated, their aspirations gone, their dreams of redemption curbed, and the immortal script simply tells us that “Jesus himself drew near.” I find it everlastingly satisfying that in all of our defeated hopes “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Sometimes it is when darkness is our closest friend and winter has its icy grip on our despairing hearts that we are kept from recognizing him. God refuses to allow us to feel his presence to teach us that relying on whether we feel it or not does not change the reality of his care, concern, and attention to the blizzards of our souls. It is often in those times, unannounced, disguised, and unexpected that the Lord himself draws near.

So if you’re tired of this long winter, keep praying, keep waiting. Learn to love the longing for the light that the darkness produces. Let the silence of God pull you into lament, for as Spurgeon said, the best kind of prayer can not be called anything else but a cry. Consider Jesus, who risen from death offers all a hope beyond hopes, that no matter how dark the night gets, in Him an everlasting morning is coming; no matter how frosty the winter of your soul deep down there remains, for all who trust in him, an invincible summer.

Redeeming Singleness

(this is a blog post I wrote for my church’s website)

If you would have told me in college that I would be single and 34-years-old I probably would never have believed you, but life tends to ‘happen’ for many of us and here I am. In our wider culture, 34 is still young, and probably on par with the increasingly delayed age at which people are getting married, but in the Church, if you’re 34 and “still” single (I love that adverb “still” that subtly reminds you that you are not like everyone else), you are dramatically the minority.

Even as I write this, I imagine there are those reading in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s that are single that are already thinking “Luke, you have no idea…” in the same way that I inwardly laugh at and make fun of the 23-year-old recent college graduate who complains about their lack of a significant other. I want to say to these bright-eyed graduates, “When you’re 30 and still single, then come and talk to me whippersnapper.”

So here I am, 34 and single in the Church. What makes matters more pronounced is that I’m one of the preachers at a church that’s largely made up of families. When everyone’s world revolves around kids and family, singles can often have a hard time finding their place. We would do well to remember a few simple truths:

The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, clearly refers to singleness as a “gift.” However, the reality is that while we often affirm the ‘gift’ of marriage in the Church through sermon series, retreats, marriage studies, and couples activities, I believe that it is also time for the Church to recover the gift of Singleness. What exactly is “singleness as a gift”?

Singleness allows you to be single-minded in your pursuits. Paul wanted the Corinthians to be “free from anxieties” (v. 32) and clearly claims that “the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (vv. 33-34).  (This is why a disproportionate amount of church planters ‘feel called’ to go to the city that their in-laws live in!) Paul is being realistic about the realities and challenges that married life brings.  In fact, he admits: “those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” (v. 28). Paul knew of the realities of married life would bring troubles that those who are single would never have to deal with. I was talking with one of our Legacy mission partners recently who mentioned that many of those who leave the mission field or return home from doing ministry in cross-cultural environments do so because of a problem with their spouse or their marriage. As a single person, however, you can have a single-mindedness that the practical realities of marriage prohibit.

Singleness allows you to invest in friendships in a way that married people cannot. There is a social agility that comes from being single. You have a lot more open evenings, and you have a lot of time that is not spoken for by a significant other. As long as you are strategic with your time, you can use it to invest in a lot of different people. Think about this: it is much easier for a married couple to invite a single person over for dinner than it is another married couple. For some reason, there’s more pressure when its another couple: to have a perfectly clean house, to have home-cooked food that’s delicious with well-thought-out courses.  But, for some reason, when you’re single, in my experience, married couples are a lot more willing to invite you into the chaos of their everyday life and to come on over ‘as is.’

Marriage is not the cure-all for selfishness.  You’ll hear people say this all the time. Something like “I was soooo selfish before I got married.”  Here’s the mistaken assumption within this: that marriage is the ultimate antidote to sin and self-centeredness. Unfortunately, many people have bought this lie. While marriage can be a tool that helps a person grow towards greater Christ-likeness, so can singleness. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can solve our sin problem. Every potential spouse you ever meet will be under-qualified for the job of God. He/she may make you feel happy for a time, but that cannot give you the redemption that you’re seeking. Marriage is a temporary status given to some to for the mutual sanctification of each partner, but God uses relationships of many kinds to help us grow (James 4:14, Matthew 22:30). Spiritual maturity necessitates relational richness.

The only thing that can save you from the two dangers of either wanting marriage too much out of insecurity, or wanting marriage too little out of cynicism or fear is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have friends in both categories, and truth be told, I have found myself in both categories. Do you see the dangers in each extreme? The insecurity which craves a spouse to fulfill one’s identity is such that no other person can ever fill that inner emptiness. If you are desperately and insecurely seeking a wife or a husband, you will crush every potential spouse with the godlike expectations you place upon them to fill that emptiness within you. On the contrary, if you desire marriage too little because of cynicism or fear of vulnerability, you may miss out on an amazing potential relationship through which God wants to shape and mature you. The good news of what God has done for us in Christ can remind the insecure person that all the love they could ever need is found in Christ, our True Husband, who gave Himself up for us on the Cross and gave us a new identity. That Gospel can also free those afraid of marriage from the need to find the perfect spouse because it exposes the modern idol of independence lodged in our hearts. It also similarly reminds us that we can fully embrace our flaws and the flaws of our potential marriage partner as we see ourselves as sinners in need of God’s grace.

We would do well to recover the gift of singleness, not as a kind of ‘purgatory’ while we wait for marriage, nor as a way of life completely devoid of desire for marriage.  We would do well to have this attitude, so well-articulated by Paige Benton Brown (go search her name along with ‘singleness’ and read her article if you haven’t yet … it’s amazing): “Let’s face it: singleness is not an inherently inferior state of affairs. . . . But I want to be married. I pray to that end every day. I may meet someone and walk down the aisle in the next couple of years because God is so good to me. I may never have another date . . . because God is so good to me.”