John Chau and the Moral Obligation to be Intelligent

John Chau died last week, on the shores of the Sentinel Island and at the hands of its inhabitants. Long and notoriously reclusive, the island’s people are protected by law, both out of a desire to preserve their way of life, but also to protect them from Western illnesses which threaten genocide. Chau, determined to reach them for Jesus, died there, studded with arrows, shortly after arriving on the shore and ‘hollering’ that “Jesus loves you!” His story has been awash in the news, and the details have been intensely galvanizing. Was Chau, like Jim Elliot, a martyr for a lost people group? Or was he just another colonizing Westerner, intent on destroying indigenous populations in the name of a dangerously inflated religious ego? The jury remains out.

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There are things I want to say about Chau, and about how we Christians respond to him, but first I want to pause to consider more deeply these two competing narratives. On the one hand stands the Jim Elliot narrative. Elliot, passionate, moody, introspective, and compelling, felt a call to reach an Ecuadorean group called the Quechua in 1956. He, several friends, and their wives made their way down to Ecuador, fully knowing the dangers that might lie ahead. They made early contact with the group by means of flyovers. They reached out gently to meet the tribe and had initial success. Optimistic, they returned to continue their efforts. But something happened—we don’t know what—and there was a sudden change in the tribesmen. Instead of fellowship, without warning they began to cast spears. Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Peter Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully all died there. But such was not the end of their story. Covered by Life magazine, their example galvanized missions work in America. Not only that, but Elliot’s widow, Elisabeth, returned with the other widows to continue to reach out to the tribe, who eventually came to faith. Almost as a perfect statement on the whole story, Elliot had written in his diary, some time before, these compelling words, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” The story of Jim Elliot remains one of the most tragic, heroic, and compelling in the history of modern missions.

Through gates of splendor

Elisabeth Elliot tells the story of Jim and the other missionaries in this iconic book. Well worth a read, if you haven’t heard of it.

Was John Chau another Jim Elliot? In the minds of many, the answer is a self-evident “Yes.” He is called, knows the risks, takes them anyway, and out of obedience and a radical love for Jesus lays his life on the line to share the gospel. He, a fool for Christ, clearly gives what cannot be kept (his life) to gain what cannot be lost. In the minds of many Christians, Chau’s heavenly rewards are certain and secure.

But there is another narrative, one that tells us how much the world has changed since 1956. In this narrative, Chau is an egotistical colonist, who cannot bear to leave an indigenous people alone, even if his presence means potentially wiping them out completely. He is a foolhardy maniac, openly defying the laws of India to take a gospel the Sentinelese haven’t asked for, and potentially don’t need, and force them into the 21st century by means of it. The discomfort may run even deeper—in an age of consent, Chau’s insistence on advancing into a people group without their consent may come to look even like a kind of cultural rape. Behold, in Chau’s smiling face is embedded the insane Christian ego, violating the culture and conscience of a people, all the while telling them that “it’s for your own good.” It’s a disturbing picture.

At this point, given the material I’ve read about Chau, and given my current understanding of the picture, I must confess I am more inclined to see his death more as a tragic misstep than a heroic martyrdom. This is a situation that both could, and should have, been avoided. Irrespective, however, of the merits or demerits of Chau’s actions, I want in these brief comments to focus attention on the responses of many everyday Christians. Over the past week I’ve encountered their thoughts both in published articles and comments in response to those articles, and among my Christian peers there is a common, if not unanimous, move to praise Chau’s obedience. In their responses it is his very folly that is the central node of praise—he did what others wouldn’t do, he was obedient where others were afraid to be obedient, and his body now lies as a testimony to the future Sentinelese. Who knows, after all, whether or not this action might be the very beginning of their coming to faith?! What these sentiments exhibit, and what I want to focus on today, is our general Christian confusion between the fool and the foolhardy. More explicitly, what I detect in us is a deep suspicion of intelligence.

Moral obligation CoverRecently I read a fascinating essay by American educator John Erskine, “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent.” Writing in 1915, Erskine presents, appealing to various literary sources, a crisis in the Western mind. He writes,

Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and the hart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced—full mind, starved heart—stout heart, weak head.” (5-6)

Our habit, ingrained on his account from the time of the Saxons till now, is to distrust the crafty, and to trust the simpleminded; that somehow simplemindedness is in itself a virtue, while intelligence is always mere shades away from vice. We are programmed now to be suspicious of scientists, of experts, of people with letters after their names, and to prize (at least sentimentally) homegrown wisdom and certain varieties of ‘common sense.’

Erskine takes issue with the prevalence of these sentiments, and perhaps the centre of his argument is as follows:

But as a race we seem as far as possible from realising that an action can intelligently be called good only if it contributes to a good end; that it is the moral obligation of an intelligent creature to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or a bad end; and that any system of ethics that excuses him from that obligation is vicious. (17-18)

ErskineGoodness, he argues, is not an innate property of the simple. Nor is vice an innate property of the intelligent. Instead, a given action is good or bad if it leads to (and is connected with) good or bad ends, and only the virtue of intelligence can calculate the metrics of those goods and bads. There is no value in foolhardy stupidity, or in a gung-ho bulldozing through barriers and walls, or in blind obedience to a simplistic understanding. In fact, Erskine argues, “any system of ethics that excuses [us] from that obligation is vicious.” In other words, any system that allows us to ignore the obligation to be intelligent, to think through causes and effects, to know and love the good in our circumstances, is a system which allows us to justify our actions based on factors that aren’t good. If we refuse to be guided by intelligence, in other words, we will be guided by our desires (such as our desire to be well thought of), or our fears (such as our fear of missing out), or our false conclusions (such as our bullheaded refusal to admit fault and make things right).

To some, I imagine this may sound like a kind of grand casuistry—an excuse mongering which dodges the pure call to obedience. Chau was obedient, God will provide, case closed. And yet we do have a direct command in scripture regarding our intelligence—to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Pause and think about that first clause for a moment. Wise as serpents. The serpent was the most crafty animal God had made. So crafty, in fact, that it becomes nearly synonymous with the Devil himself. And we are to be like him in that way. Crafty. Devious. Plotting. Intelligent. All while remaining innocent and pure. Reading the ardent supporters of Chau, it is not hard to imagine that we’ve read the passage in reverse, and in obedience to our misunderstanding we are now wise as doves and harmless as serpents. Constitutionally stupid (doves), we commit harms on others (snakebites).

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sometimes we forget that the snake is itself a creation of God, and that this suggests it is part of the ‘good’ of the whole creation… !

Curiously, this very morning I read another scripture that seems to apply the same lessons—this time, from the mouth of that cranky prophet, Amos:

14Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
And thus may the Lord God of hosts be with you,
Just as you have said!
15 Hate evil, love good,
And establish justice in the gate!
Perhaps the Lord God of hosts
May be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:14-15)

The warning, in other words, is to utilize our intelligence for the execution of just judgment—to evaluate our circumstances and make a choice based on our comprehension of good and evil. The danger of ignoring the good, and of neglecting the knowledge of evil as a possibility, is to fall to judgment. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

What judgment we make about Chau, and whether or not he is a martyr for the Christian faith, may have to wait on the perspective of eternity. What cannot wait for that eternal perspective, is our duty and mandate to access and exercise our moral intelligence. There is no value in the foolhardy per se, there is great harm to be done by being wilfully simpleminded. And those who urge obedience at the expense of careful, wise reflection, potentially urge us onto courses of destruction.

The Desperate Necessity for ‘Common Ground’

“There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground.” This was the headline for a recent article in Time magazine, penned by novelist and professor Tayari Jones (Emory). In her article Jones tells a compelling story about her upbringing. Her parents were activists, “veterans of the civil rights movement,” and under their tutelage she also learned to stand up for what she believed was right. On one occasion, riding in the back of a car for a zoo trip, she was astonished to discover that the driver was getting gas from Gulf, a company complicit in financing Apartheid. Young Tayari got out of the car and refused to ride further. She missed out on the zoo that day, but when her father came to collect her he was proud of her choice.

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Jones uses her story as a launching pad to critique the desire for ‘common ground.’ She writes,

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

Where was the ‘middle,’ she asks, with regard to American slavery? Where is the ‘middle’ with regard to Japanese internment during WWII? “What is halfway,” she queries, “between moral and immoral?” (The implied answer is ‘no place.’)

To be fair, I think Jones is right to critique the rhetoric of platitudes. There are times when appeals for ‘common ground’ are, as she suggests, rooted in “conflict avoidance and denial.” There are times when the language of ‘good people on both sides’ is a cheat, a deception, a statement intended to diffuse the perception of discomfort. In this I am reminded that when eight clergymen approached Martin Luther King Jr. and critiqued his methods of nonviolent resistance, he responded in his famous letter from the jail in Birmingham, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Those clergyman didn’t want King to delay for the sake of compromise, they wanted him to delay because they were uncomfortable. They advocated for a kind of ‘common ground’ in order to ease their own discomfort.

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And yet the blanket dismissal of compromise which Jones’s piece advocates is deeply troubling. Above all else, in the rejection of compromise there is a presumption that one side is completely right, while the other side is completely wrong. This might make sense when fighting Nazis in Germany, and it might have validity when defending yourself from an advancing army of cannibals, but things in real life are rarely so clear-cut. Furthermore, an appeal to no-compromise sounds compelling, and can effectively galvanize a base, but what if you find yourself on the outside of that base? It’s one thing to claim no compromise, as Jones does, with respect to issues of immigration, Black America, and White Nationalism, but what about no compromise on the part of abortion, or gender identity, or the dissolution of the family? Aren’t these also issues that display a spectrum of ‘moral and immoral’? Am I to reject compromise with Jones, or any other disputant, when a moral question is in play?

But there are deeper problems still. What has happened in the past when we have rejected compromise? Consider the following:

There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it. And that party is either the Left: and then God help us! for it will lead us to complete destruction – to Bolshevism, or else it is a party of the Right which at the last, when the people is in utter despair, when it has lost all its spirit and has no longer any faith in anything, is determined for its part ruthlessly to seize the reins of power – that is the beginning of resistance of which I spoke a few minutes ago. Here, too, there can be no compromise – there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew. (Adolf Hitler, 1922, emphasis added)

Here lies the real danger, to which Jones (unwittingly) points but to which both sides of the ideological debate are prone: the logic of Hitler applies to both sides of the ideological spectrum. And the grim truth is that if I determine you to be irredeemable—a misfit, a deplorable, recalcitrant, unwilling to change—then if I will not compromise with you I must do other things to you. In short, I open a door to the possibility of removing you from the equation. A refusal to compromise is the proto-rhetoric to murder. And if we aren’t planning to murder one another, then some form of compromise is going to be in order.

Adolf Hitler holding a speech

What is compromise? I can think of two definitions. First, compromise is the art of living within a complexity of differences. Every marriage is built on compromise. Two agents inhabit the same space but with different wills and desires. She wants to watch one film, he wants to watch another. Without compromise, how do you resolve the situation? Second, compromise is the art of disagreeing with someone without killing them. Sometimes a compromise is an agreement to disagree. Sometimes compromise means both of us giving up something we like for the sake of living in relative peace. And it’s worth noting that some compromises work, while others don’t. For example, the American government is founded on a “Great Compromise” which created our two houses of government (bridging the competing factors of states-rights and population). This compromise has been working successfully for hundreds of years. In the same vein, the Mason-Dixon line was a compromise with regard to the spread of slavery in early America—this was a compromise that failed, catastrophically.

For certain, it is not always the case that failed compromise ends in the murder of your disputant—some failed compromises end in divorce, or loss, or never speaking to one another again. But when we’re speaking of a political entity—such as a state—and when we are advocating through our rhetoric for a set of members in that state to be regarded as fundamentally immoral and irredeemable, then we are sidling up to a very dangerous line. Are there times when it is the right thing to do away with an ideological bloc? Certainly. Can we kill Nazis with impunity? Sometimes. Have we found a better way, in the past 2000 years, of changing someone’s mind than violence? The answer is uncertain—gulags and re-education camps are some of the 20th century’s greatest horrors. The only way, it seems, of changing someone’s mind without violence is, well, compromise. Finding common ground, highlighting the good ‘on the other side,’ and patiently, sometimes painfully, waiting while working for change. The alternative is to murder them.

Five Types of Listening

In a deleted scene from Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s character asks John Travolta a searching question, “In conversation, do you listen, or wait to talk?” Travolta pauses, then replies, “I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I’m trying harder to listen.”

Pulp Fiction

Travolta’s character in the movie isn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but here he speaks wisely, and here he speaks for many of us. We struggle to listen. We don’t hear the end of other people’s sentences. We are very often eager to take the floor. Our thoughts and responses to other people’s thoughts and reflections, whether voiced or not, crowd out our capacity to really hear what the other person is saying.

The reality of this came home to me as a pastor, tasked with teaching people how to pray for other people. If you think about it, praying for someone, aloud, in their presence, isn’t the most natural of tasks. What do you say? How much do you say? How do you know when you’re done? And how are we supposed to speak to God for another person? But beneath these difficulties lies the problem of listening, and by problem I mean that we aren’t by nature very good listeners. We are good at judgment, and jumping to conclusions, and above all at choosing our responses based on words that make us feel better.

Let me give some examples. Perhaps we hear someone speak about a problem they are having at work or home, and our first impulse may be to address the problem, to fix the issue. But beneath a desire to fix things is very often an unsettling anxiety. If I’m honest, your story makes me anxious, and my proposed solution is less about your problem than it is about my personal anxiety. I am speaking to make myself feel better. Alternatively, we hear someone speaking about an issue they are dealing with—bad financial planning, or poor relational choices. What creeps into our minds in those moments is very often a narrative of judgment. “That was stupid,” we think. “If you’d done things another way you wouldn’t be in this situation, you know.” “You always get into these kinds of problems. Don’t you think you could learn your lesson by now?” These judgments similarly cloud our capacity to hear what is really going on the person’s life. They fill up the backlog of things we are waiting to say. And while we’re waiting, we’re not listening very well anymore.

Woman with her fingers in her ears

If we’re going to be better listeners, we’ve got to practice listening. Toward that end, today, I want to attempt to briefly outline five different types of listening. We’ll use questions to frame each of the types of listening, partially because asking questions is a great way to show that we’re listening. These five questions are designed to get us past our judgments, and to help us master our anxieties. Also, while the first three types apply to everyone, the final two are specific to Christians.

#1. What’s going on in you? This is the first area of listening. When someone comes to you and shares a concern, or tells a story about their life, saturating their narrative is a state of being, an often confused and intermingled set of feelings, emotions, and responses. A first task in listening well is listening to the person’s heart, to the story they, perhaps, aren’t articulating in their words. The person may know exactly how he or she feels, or the person may not know at all. But we can work to be attentive to the emotional subtext of their story. This should give us some idea of what’s going on inside the person speaking.

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#2. Where are you coming from? This is the second area of listening. Each person who tells you a story comes from somewhere. The story is rooted in a larger situation, with other actors and characters impacting the narrative, influencing the speaker’s responses and perception of events. A significant part of listening is listening to this where aspect of the person. Good listening involves an attempt to place the person’s story in a helpful and accurate context.

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#3. What is it you want? This is the third area of listening. Each person who discloses a narrative to you also wants things. The desire may be as simple as to offload the story, or to commiserate with a friendly ear. The person may want an honest resolution to the situation, or he or she may want a dishonest resolution! Independent of the merit of the particular desire, the person who speaks holds in his or her heart a goal, a purpose, masked or bald, which influences who they are and what’s going on in their lives at this time. We’ve got to attend to this desire.

Trump Supporter

#4. What is the Lord saying to this person right now? Here—and obviously this presumes a Christian conversation—we can prompt the person to speak about how God is speaking to them in their situation. We should always assume, in any conversation, that God is at work as a third party, nudging, whispering, shouting, drawing, blocking—doing the conversational things that God does through all of us, have we the ears to hear.

Immigrant Protestor

#5. What is the Lord saying to me in all this? This final aspect of listening is crucial. It runs parallel to all of the other kinds of listening we do, because inasmuch as He is speaking and nudging the person we are listening to, He is also speaking and nudging us as we attend to the goings on of the person’s, the nature of this individual’s situation, and the expressed or unexpressed desires implicit in the narrative. Here the listening ear turns from the words the person speaks to a spiritual subtext, so that when we attend to the voice of the Lord, and when we learn the sound of His voice, He becomes the one who guides our attention to what matters, and when we trust Him we release to His care the anxieties that make us bad listeners in the first place.

Vietnam War

I want to make a few observations about listening in this way. The first is that none of these forms of listening require any judgment on your part, whatsoever. When you are listening to a person’s heart, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to the history of their story, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to their desires, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening alongside them for the voice of the Lord, you aren’t judging them. To listen well almost never means agreeing with the person to whom you listen—it is more a journey of mutual discovery. You get to find out what they think and feel, and, very often, they also get to discover what it is that they think and feel. It is in this sense that listening is a validating activity. Validation is not to be confused with agreement. If I validate you, and I am affirming that you have communicated to me what you wanted, that I understand your emotions, your story, your desires. To listen in this way requires me to lay aside my control of the conversation, or, at least, my anxious control. I don’t have to win. I don’t have to get in the last word. I don’t have to change your mind. The best we might achieve is that you get to clearly state your mind.

You may note that I’ve chosen somewhat provocative examples for the images of each of these types of listening. I’ve chosen them, specifically, because I feel that they represent places where we’ve become especially bad listeners, places where our judgments and anxieties very often crowd out the real person who is trying to communicate something personal to us. It’s worth reflecting on those situations and mentally applying these principles of listening to them, to see what happens.

None of this means that we don’t speak. It also doesn’t mean that, sometimes, will won’t be required to offer judgments. There will be moments when a person needs to hear the words, “That was a stupid choice.” But this will never be before we’ve performed the difficult task of listening well. And altogether this means that listening, quite simply, is both a taxing and rewarding activity. It is hard work. It takes a great deal of energy, emotionally and physically. But when we succeed, we bless both the speaker and ourselves. If we become skilled, we are likely to grow in empathy. If we are obedient, then we might begin to hear more from God Himself.

Naked and Unashamed—Friendship and Dating

As mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve recently had the joy of publishing, along with Jerry and Claudia Root, a book on marriage called Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Paraclete Press). For the past fifteen years now, the material at the heart of this book has been shaping and nourishing my own marriage to Liesel. It’s a huge pleasure to be able to share its blessings with more people now.

Jerry and ClaudiaLiesel and I met with Jerry for five or six sessions back in 2003. We’d come over to his house, hang out on couches, and listen to him talk about marriage. Then, we’d stay afterwards and pepper him with further questions about life, marriage, parenting, and faith. It was a fantastic series of months. Those five sessions have now become a book of fifteen chapters, digestible, straightforward, and hopefully easily accessible to couples of all types and stages of life.

In today’s excerpt, we’ve got a passage on friendship and dating. As I said last time, please read! And be encouraged! Be a little challenged! If you feel like you want more, you can find copies in bookstores, on Amazon.com, and on the Paraclete Press website. (Also, if you are interested in a review copy, send me a note with your email address and I’ll pass your information on to the publisher!)

“Friendship and Dating”
Excerpted from, Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Chapter 4)

As we hope you can see, these shared interests become the basis of your ongoing friendship as a couple. And it is important to note that a couple with good experiences together, common interests, and positive regard, is significantly buffered against the everyday stresses of life in the world and life together. A couple who commit to being and becoming friends very nearly guarantees the success of their marriage as well as a high level of relational happiness.

Why should this be the case? Consider something C.S. Lewis wrote in his book on the four loves,

Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever talk about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest. (The Four Loves)

The gaze at, while wonderful, is insufficient to keep a couple throughout life—there must also be a gaze alongside. In this, the couple strive to find places of commonality—shared books, shared experiences, shared interests—which will keep them fresh and interesting as the years progress. All too often it happens that couples neglect this critical aspect of their relationship, allowing work, then children, to crowd out their investment in one another. The result, tragically, is that at some point the children move out of the home and the husband and wife discover to their mutual dismay that they are married to a virtual stranger. If you would have love thrive in your marriage for the long term, you would be wise to seek to share passions beyond simply one another.

Many couples implicitly feel that dating belongs to the time before marriage, and that once they are married they no longer need to date. Indeed, many challenges begin to arise as life becomes more complex. Finances, children, hiring babysitters—these things can make dating your spouse seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But dating clearly is a key way to continue to develop friendship and interest with one another—whether it be eating at a favorite restaurant, or seeing the latest film together, going on a walk, attending a play, sitting on a blanket together in a park, or simply getting dessert and talking. A date is an activity which bridges the gap between the gaze which looks at your spouse, and the gaze which looks together with your spouse. In the words of the author of Ecclesiastes,

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

Perhaps, in this circumstance, the third strand of the cord which strengthens a couple is their cultivated interest in subjects which bring life to their relationship—in their commitment to friendship, dating, and a life together grounded in a look alongside one another.

Eugene Peterson and the Smell of Barbecue

The Christian world is this week awash with stories and reflections on Eugene Peterson, pastor, spiritual theologian, and author best known for his multi-million selling Bible paraphrase, The Message. In fact, not only the Christian world, but the New York Times and the Washington Post each published obituaries for this eminent pastor who was, by all accounts, very nearly the opposite of a ‘public figure.’ What was the appeal of this unlikely public pastor?

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I have only a limited personal encounter with Peterson. I attended Regent College from 2005-2009, where Eugene had been on staff, and while I was there his presence was still very much felt in what Regent did and the kind of place Regent wanted to be. He had become an inextricable part of the ethos of the school. For my part, I’d honestly never heard of the guy before showing up in Vancouver, and so I, quite naturally, began a program of reading some of his books, and listening to some of his recorded courses, available in the school library. I listened to Soulcraft (a study in Ephesians). I read Reversed Thunder, his book on John’s Revelation. I dabbled in The Message. And later, when I was in full time ministry, I read his The Pastor: A Memoir.

Peterson_Pastor MemoirAt this point, I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never really been able to connect with Peterson’s work. I found his teaching in Soulcraft lackluster and forgettable. With the exception of Reversed Thunder (which I hold to be one of the best books on John’s Revelation available), I simply don’t like his writing. The Message—ugh!—The Message reads to me like a car with one square wheel, all herky-jerky and awkward and nearly unreadable. I can’t stomach it. When I read his biography of the life of a pastor I couldn’t shake the lurking feeling that “this simply isn’t my story.” If Eugene Peterson’s pastoral soul represents one shape of gear, and my pastoral soul another, then, regrettably, we are tooled for incompatibility.

All the same, for scores and scores of my friends and fellow pastors, Peterson’s writings have encouraged, restored hope, challenged, and been a balm. To read their stories, for many of them Peterson’s writing saved their ministries, if not their souls. (Which, incidentally, makes me suspect that the problem of connection I feel in reading Peterson’s stuff might lie with me.) They look to Peterson like a father, a friend they’ve never met, a spiritual guide and rock of stability, uniquely situated in our time to provide a bulwark against the present darkness. He gave them hope. But why?

Peterson_Long ObedienceI can’t help but conclude that a portion of Peterson’s appeal lay in his retiring attitude. He wasn’t interested in fame. He didn’t set himself up to be a public figure, with a large ministry and wide range of influence. Instead, he sought faithfulness in the small plot of a church which he and his wife had planted. The affirmation of small church, small obedience, is very likely a key factor in his ability to encourage the pastors I know, for whom the allure and appeal of ‘big’ churches and ‘big’ ministries is a constant temptation. In an age of church growth, marketability, and relevance, Peterson championed small obedience and long faithfulness. Additionally, I wonder if part of Peterson’s appeal lay in his reticence to align with the political wing of modern evangelicalism. Sometimes, giving one’s allegiance to a Christian figure has meant giving one’s allegiance to a political position or party. But in Peterson we encountered a Christian figure who was deeply counter-cultural and yet starkly unlike the array of alternatives.

In light of this, I confess a further worry—what is it about people like Peterson that drives us, in the Church, to make of them heroes, public figures, and celebrities? Why, despite Peterson’s avowed desire to avoid such popularity, do we insist on giving it to him? One of my professors at Regent told me that once he was in line with Eugene to get a coffee in Regent’s atrium. Students would come up and stare at him, as if they hoped that some of the glory might rub off on them. At that moment, my professor realized one of the reasons why it was that Eugene was retiring: he felt was being made too much of. Why is it that instead of taking Peterson’s teaching as it was stated—to pursue a long obedience in the same direction—that we inveterately try to sidle up to him so as to catch a bit of the glory, to hasten our own spirituality through proximate encounter? Why, to the man who taught us to avoid all short cuts in spirituality, would we turn him into a short cut?

Regent_Well

Regent’s Bookstore/Coffee Shop is a lovely place to visit.

I can think of many reasons to answer that question, some of them less than complementary, but I will conclude with a generous one. When I arrived at Regent in 2005, language of Eugene’s presence, and stories of his teaching and life, were still fresh in the air. It seemed to me that he had only left the place a year before. It was only reading his obituary the other day that I realized he had retired from Regent in 1998! For seven years the memory of his presence had remained so fresh that when I arrived I thought he had only just left. That is an astonishing, unprecedented legacy. Upon reflection, it makes me think of Ephesians 5:1-2, where Paul writes the following: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Those closing two words, a “fragrant aroma” are in Greek the words οσμη ευωδιας (osme euodias). They are the words used throughout the Old Testament to describe the fragrance of a burnt offering to the Lord—it is the smell, in other words of barbecue. You know the smell, it wafts over the neighbourhood, and makes you wonder if, just maybe, you might gatecrash your neighbour’s dinner for a taste. It is alluring, and good, and calls you to goodness. In the same way, Paul says, Christ’s life is for us such a fragrant aroma, wafting over other lives, calling us to participate and join in. Furthermore, we are to imitate that life so that our lives become similarly fragrant. It seems to me that Eugene Peterson’s life gave off such an odor that seven years after departing Regent his aroma still brought life to the place.

I’ve been immensely blessed to know several people in life for whom this aroma is part and parcel of their walk with the Lord. Where they’ve been, you know it, because the vestiges of their presence hangs about. They are naturally attractive people—we want to be around them, to soak up their goodness, their perspective, to ‘catch’ some of the glory if possible. I never met Eugene Peterson in person, but it seems clear to me that he was such a person as well. And yet the very best thing that such people can do for us is to remind us that our lives give off an odor, too. To that realization, we can only ask, “What kind of odor will it be?”

Rest well in Christ, Eugene. You gave off a good smell. May we learn from that and, instead of turning to you as a proxy, seek to do the same.

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Naked and Unashamed–“Idiot Lights”

Naked and Unashamed CoverIf you didn’t know, a few months back I published (along with Jerry and Claudia Root) a book on marriage, called Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Paraclete Press). I’m immensely glad the book is in print, and immensely honored to have worked on it with Jerry and Claudia, who married Liesel and I almost fifteen years ago now. I honestly can’t wait for people to read it and (I trust!) be blessed by what’s in it.

Jerry and Claudia have performed premarital counseling for over 1500 couples over the past 40 years, and the outline of their material was chock-full of wisdom that we felt more couples needed in hand. In the years that I was a pastor, I had used the same material when counseling couples for marriage, as well as in encouraging the marriages in my churches. Wonderfully, our experience comes together in the book and forms something fresh. While originally the material in hand was targeted specifically for couples in preparation for marriage, in Naked and Unashamed we’ve expanded it so that it can be an encouragement for marriages of all stripes—a refresher course, if you will.

Over the next few months I’ll be sharing a few extracts from the book on this blog. Read! Be encouraged! Be a little challenged! And if you feel like you want more, you can find copies in bookstores, on Amazon.com, and on the Paraclete Press website. (Also, if you are interested in a review copy, send me a note with your email address and I’ll pass your information on to the publisher!)

“Idiot Lights”
Excerpted from, Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Chapter 1)

In the Proverbs it states that “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (27:17). This is not a description of one smooth object gently sliding across another, but a process of one rough edge grating against another. The pressure of persons in close contact is the sharpening process by which we are made keen for use—by which our innermost persons are refined and made beautiful.

Conflict, then, does not mean you are a failure. When you own and operate a car, changing the oil every 3000 miles will make your car last for a long time. On many models, if the oil is not changed after a certain period of time, a light will go off on the dashboard—we call this an idiot light. When the light goes off, it doesn’t mean that the car’s owner is an idiot, merely that he or she is on the threshold of becoming one. Ignore the light, and in time you will become an idiot. Similarly, conflict in marriage simply identifies areas that require maintenance. Conflict doesn’t mean you are an idiot—but ignore the conflict, or refuse to attend to the work it asks of you, and in time you will become one.

Good marriages, you see, are never problem-free marriages; instead, a good marriage is one where the partners watch for the warning signals and grow by attending to them. A good marriage is not one where each partner has it all together, perfectly sorted, but one where they are secure enough in God’s love for them, and their growing love for one another, that they are not afraid to admit the limits of their capacities. Good marriages create space to be novices, to be awkward, to admit that none of us has very much life skill, that no one is ever ready for marriage, or children, or grows up without regrets. When a couple can operate through their conflicts from the perspective of that kind of security, then the result is always a high and steady growth curve.

We see this again in the words of Robert Browning’s poem, Rabbi ben Ezra, the opening line of which romantically invites the listener to “Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be.” Lines 31-32 have the following phrase, “Then welcome each rebuff/that turns earth’s smoothness rough.” It is easy to make judgments of simplicity—things often appear smooth. But further insight, greater perception, often challenge our initial perceptions. A cue ball to the eye and hand is perfectly smooth. Under a microscope, however, it appears pitted and mountainous. The couple that would take advantage of the opportunity offered by conflict in marriage will permit the new information brought by their spouse to alter their initial perception. Things which on one view appeared smooth on a further view become textured. Additionally, a field before being tilled is hard and smooth, but the rebuff of the spade turns its smoothness rough, preparing the soil for fresh fruitfulness. In the same way, the idiot lights of conflict, viewed properly, become opportunities for a harvest of good.

The good news, of course, is that you are never expected to resolve all of these difficulties on your own. When the idiot light signals in your marriage, seek help as soon as the need arises. Wiser people than you have covered this ground before you; call them to your aid. Consult books. Visit counselors, church groups, pastors, seminars, and conferences. Each of these is a resource—like tools and equipment in your gardening shed—that are available to help you grow, as well as heal, your marriage. Do this quickly because unchecked difficulties will compound over time. To humbly seek help is itself the process of developing life skill, and the best thing the unskilled can do is to surround themselves with wise counselors until they themselves have grown and matured in wisdom. The practice of regularly investing time and energy into this work is precisely the necessary work of your marriage.

Grace, Truth, and Kavanaugh

“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” ~ Proverbs 18:17

Whenever big public hearings take place, whenever big political kerfuffles dominate my newsfeed, I am reminded of the Proverb above—that the first to speak seems right. Our media world is dominated by first impressions, and the first to speak, to get the scoop, to tell the story, has an ongoing advantage in public discourse. We humans are also, as a rule, quite bad at impartiality—when we tell a story we weight the evidence in our favour. But these first impressions always get a little rattled when “another comes and examines him.” We get to hear the other side of the story, and, the more we listen carefully, as often as not, that other person begins to sound plausible.

All of this has, of course, been rattling about in my head as I’ve witnessed the nightmare Senate hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Christine Blasey Ford has accused Kavanaugh of attempted rape from 35 years ago. Brett Kavanaugh has categorically denied the allegation. And at this point, things have boiled down to what amounts to a fairly straightforward he said/she said. What that means, in the briefest possible sense, is that the only sure conclusion we can draw from this stalemate is that somebody isn’t telling the truth. Either Blasey Ford, or Kavanaugh, is deceiving or deceived. And in such a climate both Grace and Truth are the real casualties.

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Before we wade into these complexities, let’s outline, for a moment, what I think are the only six options for what has happened. We’ve got three options each for Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford:

K1) Kavanaugh is innocent, and ignorant of this attempted rape because he didn’t do it.

K2) Kavanaugh not innocent, but is ignorant of this attempted rape because he doesn’t remember it.

K3) Kavanaugh is not innocent, and is consciously lying about it.

BF1) Ford was assaulted by Kavanaugh as described.

BF2) Ford was assaulted, but has misidentified her attacker.

BF3) Ford was not assaulted, and is accusing Kavanaugh out of malice.

In each case option one presumes honesty, option two considers the possibility of some form of self-deception, and option three presumes a kind of malice. I think it’s fair to reason, given their vivid public testimonies, that neither party is here engaged in malicious denial or accusation. The cost of leveling a false accusation (socially and politically), or of perjuring oneself before the court, is too high and improbable. That means that, most likely, some combination of options one or two for both Ford and Kavanaugh are probably the case—in other words, either Kavanaugh is telling the truth and Ford as misidentified her attacker (K1 and BF2), or Ford is telling the truth and Kavanaugh doesn’t remember (BF1 and K2). But how are we to determine the truth? What evidence will we gather that can effect a change one way or the other? And, in this politically supercharged scenario, does anyone even care about the truth at all?

Scale

An impartial scale doesn’t weight evidence unfairly ahead of time.

What has emerged, instead of a sincere desire for the truth of what happened, is a welter of politically motivated partisanship and of culturally motivated virtue signaling. Viewers, failing even an attempt at impartiality, have entered the foray of opinions with their pre-judged conclusions in hand, little ready to listen and readjust their thinking to the other who “comes to examine.” On the political right, Democratic tactics look suspiciously like a purely political smear campaign. On the political left, Republican tactics look suspiciously like a hastening to get Kavanaugh in place before mid-term elections (potentially) swing key votes in the Senate. On the conservative side, a good man is being destroyed because of his pro-life stance and what that means for the Supreme Court. On the liberal side, the ‘rights’ of women are being threatened by a man who appears to be himself the embodiment of white, privileged male power. On both sides, tribalism reigns, impartiality withers, and the truth suffers.

In this maelstrom, the tribalism of #metoo emerges as a particular threat to impartiality. For those of you who read this blog, you will know that I have been, generally, supportive of the aims of the #metoo movement. There is something vital, and deeply Christian, about listening to the voices of people who have suffered and seeking justice on their behalf. But in the present public displays we see some of the real ugliness of the movement as well. There is in its accusations an immediate presumption of guilt, a guilt by association, a condemnation by gender, and an abandonment of due process. The hashtag #believewomen is itself emblematic of this trouble. Women can be deceived as well as men. Women can be mendacious as well as men. Women can be malicious as well as men. An accusation is never in itself definitive proof of guilt, and the supposition that Ford, because she is a woman, ought to be believed outright is a distortion of the very justice #metoo claims to seek. In fact, these kinds of single-declaration accusations are not the stuff of American democracy, but of Maoist “Struggle Sessions” and of Stalinist “public denunciations,” where politically unfavorable persons may be publicly destroyed, without recourse, simply by the accusations of their peers.

Struggle Session

Struggle sessions, like this one, were a crucial factor in social control during the communist regimes of Mao and Stalin.

At the same time, as conservatives double down on their narrative of liberal obstructionism (whatever its political merits) they communicate to a host of women that women’s voices don’t matter. In the minds of many Republicans the primary story here is about the Supreme Court and the Democratic hatred of the Republican agenda. In their minds, #metoo has nothing to do with that process, and yet by ignoring its subtext Republicans appear to be callous and uncaring. These are the horns of the dilemma.

On both sides of the political divide, the truth plays a secondary role. Political or social aims are primary, and in the battle for the Supreme Court I think it fair to say that both Ford and Kavanaugh are reduced to pawns in other people’s fights.

But let’s imagine that we could, definitively, discover the truth. (This is, for the record, highly unlikely.) What if we discover that, indeed, Kavanaugh attempted to rape Ford in 1982 when he was 17 years old. Of course, if such a thing could be proved, Kavanaugh’s perjury about the incident would render him unfit for a seat on the Supreme Court. But laying that aside for the sake of argument, a bigger lurking question pertains to what is to be done about the past. Where is grace, accountability, and transformation? When the allegations about Bill Cosby became more than allegations, and as the scores of women emerged to accuse him of serial sexual assault, it was clear that in Cosby’s case there was a habitual pattern of predatory sexual behavior. The same was true of Harvey Weinstein, as the stories about his life emerged. But with Kavanaugh we have a different story. We have a lifetime of admirable service and (so far) impeccable character. So how do we judge a person’s past when the past is truly ‘in the past’? What do we do with the Jean Valjeans? With the Apostle Pauls? With the Chuck Colsons?

Cosby Mug Shots

I’m a pastor, and that means I’m in the forgiveness business—I believe in change, I testify personally to change. I am not (thank God!) the same person I was in high school. I am not, of course, a candidate for high office, but nevertheless I can’t help but feel that we’re in the grip of a world that is high on vengeance and knows little of forgiveness and change. John 1:17 records that “the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” The law, with its dictates and death penalties, was the old order. The law provided a courtroom where the truth could be a thing that was distorted by the lack of impartiality in its witnesses. But with Christ we encounter both truth and grace—truth, in that Christ reveals the secrets of our hearts, the secrets of our actions, of our self-deceptions, of our sins omitted and committed. But in Christ we also encounter grace, the gift of a saving God who takes of our imperfect flesh and transforms it into something new, something fresh, something that restores.

We may never find out what happened in 1982 to Christine Blasey Ford, and we may never achieve full satisfaction with regard to the character of Brett Kavanaugh. If we listen only to our newsfeeds, then we will likely be mired endlessly in partiality, vengeance, and partisanship. I would hope, however—and speaking as a Christian—that we might take this opportunity presented to us as a Church and rise above our political and cultural turmoil to advocate for truth, justice, grace, and forgiveness. They are things for which our world deeply hungers. They are gifts that Christ has entrusted to us for his world.