Monday, November 23, 2020

Living with Holy Uncertainty


Unholy Certainty

There seems to be a great appetite among Americans for certainty these days. Perhaps this is because of the lack of control we all feel in these deeply uncertain times. We reach for certainty like a three-year-old  reaches for his pacifier. No doubt, certainty can be comforting. This is why we tend to stay with our trusted news channels. God forbid that any conflicting narrative disrupts our secure echo chambers of reality.  

 I have been horrified this year at people's absolute certainty around the pandemic. 

It is a hoax. It is a liberal conspiracy. It signals the end of life as we know it. It is so deadly that it is worth closing down everything for. Masks will stop it. Masks will do nothing to stop it. A vaccine will change everything. A vaccine is to be avoided at all costs. Anyone who doesn't adhere to the restrictions is selfish. Anyone who does adhere to the restrictions is foolish. 

One would think that the unpredictability of the year would have produced in us a more humble posture towards that which we cannot fully understand. Do we think we are God that we can grab this leviathan of a pandemic by the tail? But it seems the more illusive certainty becomes, the more we grasp at it.

This appetite for certainty extends far beyond the pandemic, of course. The presidential elections dripped with similar certitude. Political pundits, celebrity pastors and prophets all made such assured predictions about their preferred candidate. And so many of them seem to be wrong.  Or are they? I cannot say for sure. Does there seem to be some inconsistency in ballot counting? I think so. If there is legal proof that it did not make any significant difference to the outcome of the election, would those of us who are suspicious concede that it was a free and fair election. I think not. That would be a terrible admission of uncertainty.

There is a kind of political fundamentalism on both sides of the aisle that amounts to unholy certainty

Holy Uncertainty 

What we really need then is what the ancients called Holy Uncertainty.

John Mark Comer, in his recent book, 'We don't know what's going to Happen and that's Okay,' writes, "Holy uncertainty is the capacity to live with a very loose grip – or no grip at all – on our plans and, more important, on the outcomes of our plans, because our security is rooted in a relational connection to God, not in a false sense of control.   

I am no relativist. I believe in absolute truth. Still, I believe it is a virtue these days to admit, "I am not confident to predict the future. I am not absolutely sure about the pandemic. I am quite confounded by the election." You may say, "That lacks conviction. People only follow you if you sound absolutely convinced about the future." What then do we do with the words of Jesus about the mystery of His return, especially those of us who are so certain about our end times predictions? "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Matthew 24:36) No one knows. Not even the Son! Only the Father.  Holy Uncertainty. 

The Boy who cried Wolf

My point is, that those who are anchored in certainty about Jesus and his gospel should be more free to admit uncertainty about disputable matters. In fact, there is a real danger that if we come across absolutely certain about everything, people will not believe us on things we should be certain about. It is like the story of the boy who cried wolf. Every night he warned the village that there was a wolf on the prowl when there was nothing. Then one night a wolf did come, but the village would not believe the boy, because he had been certain but wrong so many times before. We need to learn to pick our moments and topics of certainty if people are to pay attention. If only the Church in America were as certain about the gospel as they were about their preferred political candidate, we would have  revival.

Blood, Ink, Pencil

What we need then, is a hierarchy of certainty. Andrew Wilson, a friend and notable theologian, provides a helpful framework for us. He proposes that Biblical truth be given three categories of certainty; Blood, Ink and Pencil. 

 Blood beliefs are contained in our Creeds. They are foundational to our faith. The Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Lordship of Christ, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Inspiration of Scripture, the Great Commandment, The Great Commission. These are examples of Blood beliefs. We must be absolutely certain about these truths. They are what it means to be a Christ follower.

Ink beliefs are secondary truths that are still deeply held convictions. Believers who hold different convictions about these matters would generally not be part of the same church, but would still be part of the Body of Christ. They might include different understandings about what the Bible says regarding sexual ethics, creation, the end times, the gifts of the Spirit, baptismal practices, the role of men and women in church and marriage. If a believer becomes more certain about their end time theology than the Atonement, they have escalated an ink belief into a blood belief, which has the making of a sect.

Pencil beliefs are what the Bible refers to as 'disputable matters',  in which God gives freedom for believers to exercise their conscience. (Romans 14) They include circumcision, eating meat, drinking alcohol, watching movies, worship style, dress style, voting for a political party or our response to a pandemic. Of course, politics may be much more important to us than dress style, but it is a disputable matter. Again, if we escalate pencil beliefs into blood beliefs, we lose the gospel of grace. Each person may be convinced in their own mind, but we should not try to convince others to think our way. Unholy certainty about a pencil belief ends in the sin of legalism. This is a clear and present danger for us in our political and pandemic moment. 

So, let's continue to journey in holy uncertainty with a loose grip on the things that we cannot control. Let's not lose our grip on the One who holds us, our sorrows and our tomorrows in His nail-scarred hands.  





Friday, September 4, 2020

March Madness and the Weakness of God: A COVID-19 Reflection


March Madness, the basketball tournament, was cancelled six months ago. In every other way, March Madness trudges wearily on to this day. While we’ve begun to enjoy again the happy escape that live sports can bring, the madness of the pandemic is ever-present, picking away at the fabric of our substance and our souls. Culture and community as we know it, are at best, thread bare. At worst, they are unravelling at the seams. And it wears upon us all. 

 

I feel weary from life being cancelled by a pandemic. I feel even more weary from people   cancelling each other during the pandemic - a strange disease of its own. I have decision fatigue as our Governor changes paramaters for life, education and worship almost weekly. I have Zoom fatigue and homeschool-parent fatigue. I have homebody fatigue. In a normal year I would have done 3 international trips and numerous national trips. This year. Everything cancelled. I’m longing for a trip to break up the monotony.

 

Of course, there have been some beautiful things in this six months of March Madness. Our family have slowed down and enjoyed time together. We’ve done some satisfying house projects. Our dog thinks she is in dog heaven. She is never left home alone. Our church has been generous and resilient and we’ve experienced some gospel surprises that have come with some risks taken. Our leadership team has been brave and agile. Life rhythms have become more simplified. So, why is it then, that I feel exhausted at the end of every day?

 

I think it’s because life is more intense and uncertain than it has ever been. It feels intense because people’s opinions on everything are so strong and polarized. It feels uncertain because things seem to change almost daily, and generally for the worse. Our tendency to catastrophize is very strong as a nation. Conspiracy and end-of-the world theories abound.  Leading in this environment requires resilience. You have to listen to many conflicting and convicted points of view, receive criticism without allowing it to destroy you, search the Scriptures, lean into team and prayer, make hard decisions and then hold your line. Basically, it requires strength. I suppose I’m tired from having to be strong when I feel weak. 

 

Which is why I’ve been thinking about the weakness of Jesus a lot these six months of March Madness. The Son of God, the Eternal Creator, who never grew weary or weak, willingly embraced vulnerability to and dependence on His own creation. Jesus  was born and raised in weakness. He nursed from a mother He created. He lived under the shadow of her teenage-pregnancy scandal. He and his parents fled as refugees to Egypt from a murderous, tyrant-king. And then there was the humble monotony of learning a language and a trade while waiting for his ministry to be launched. When it eventually arrived, it began with baptism, a dove and forty days of temptation in the wilderness. Very little fanfare. Weakness.  


Hebrews 4:15 describes the why of Jesus' weakness. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus didn’t hold weakness at arms length. He embraced it in every way so that he could sympathize with us. Then Hebrews 5:2 talks about the beautiful power of Jesus’ weakness for us. “He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since He is clothed in weakness.” Because Jesus willingly clothed Himself in weakness, yet resisted sin, he doesn’t only sympathize with us in our weakness. He is able to help us gently in our ignorance and waywardness

 

The various high priests in the Old testament were sinfully weak. They could sympathize with people’s weakness, but not really help them overcome it.  Jesus was sinlessly weak. Therefore He is able to both sympathize and help us in our weakness. The word help here in the Greek is unique. It is the verb boetheian, which means to undergird or  hold together. It is only used one other time in the New Testament, in Luke’s account of the Apostle Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27. “When the sailors thought the ship was going to be torn apart by the storm, they passed supports (gk. boetheias)  to undergird the ship.” (v 17) In other words, Jesus’ high priestly help undergirds us and holds us together when we are violently storm-tossed. 


Dane Ortlund, in his book Gentle and Lowly, describes the beauty of Jesus’ gentleness like this. “Rather than dispensing grace to us from high, he gets down with us, puts his arm around us, he deals with us in the way that is just what we need. His gentle restraint simply flows from his tender heart for his people.” 


This virtue of Jesus has brought me tangible strength in my weakness. I pray it does for you too. 

 So, if March Madness still trudges wearily on for you, Jesus invites you and I to drink deeply from the never-ending fountain of His gentleness in our weakness. 





 

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Beyond Racial Gridlock: A Webinar with Dr. George Yancey


If you feel anything like I do, there is both a sense of grief at our current moment of racial volatility, and also a sense of hope that the Lord is powerfully at work. I do believe He is calling His Church to engage in hard conversations that would enable us to lead as agents of racial reconciliation and transformation in the world. But perhaps the loudest voices are not always the truest voices in our day? Perhaps God is turning up the volume on lesser known, true voices?

While on vacation in July, I read a book by Dr. George Yancey called, Beyond Racial Gridlock, which spoke powerfully to this grief and hope.You can read it here. I was so impressed by Yancey's insights that I sought out a meeting with him in Texas where he lives. My wife and I just happened to be in Denton visiting our oldest son for his 21st birthday, and Yancey has lived in Denton since he became professor of Sociology at the University of North Texas in 1999. He has now moved on to teach at Baylor University, but has remained in Denton because of a love for their community and The Village Church where  he and his wife are committed members. Despite COVID restrictions, I was delighted that Yancey agreed to grab a coffee and have a chat. Here is how he summarized his approach to racial reconciliation. 

About a Gospel Approach to Racial Reconciliation 

Much of the church has taken one of two approaches to racial issues we face in America. One is to sit on our hands and wait for things to blow over, dismissing or ignoring legitimate concerns being put forth, at times lacking compassion for our fellow man, or providing counter arguments that miss the heart of the matter. The other approach desires action, but with little Gospel foundation, this group pursues the media and "woke" crowd narrative of condemnation and guilt which also misses the mark.

Both of these approaches are secular in nature. Both of these approaches are divisive and will lead to further division in our country and the church because both of these approaches lack grace and fail to take into account man's sinful nature. Neither approach will ultimately bring about the needed change of reconciliation in our country or our churches.

Yancey challenges the church to a third way to approach these issues at hand that is rooted in the gospel. Christ is the ultimate reconciler. The church is His reconciling agent. Dr. Yancey calls the church to embrace its Christ given role in this matter showing the way forward through the tensions of our day that only the gospel can provide.

                                     -------------------------------------------------------

 After hearing him unpack his theory of mutual responsibility as it had worked out in his multiracial marriage, as well as his church, I asked Dr. Yancey to teach a seminar for our church and the churches we work with. He graciously agreed, and I am persuaded that this webinar will be a game changer for our churches and communities at this time. 

So, I am pleased to invite you to  join us to hear from George Yancey (PhD, University of Texas) teaching on a Gospel Approach to Racial Reconciliation on Tuesday, September 22nd from 4:15 - 6:30 pm PDT via Zoom. I hope you will join us. You can sign up for the webinar here.

About George Yancey

After graduating West Texas State University with a B. S. in Economics, Dr. Yancey attended the University of Texas at Austin and received his doctorate in Sociology in 1995. He first began to study interracial romance but then was fortunate enough to work with Michael Emerson on a half-million dollar grant to study multiracial churches. A few years ago Professor Yancey began to study academic bias and now has also conducted research on anti-Christian attitudes in the United States. That resulted in some of his latest writings. In 1999 he began teaching at the University of North Texas. Then in 2019 he started working for Baylor University with a joint appointment in Sociology and Institute of Religious Studies, focusing on race relations and anti-Christian attitudes in the United States. Concerning racial issues, Dr. Yancey has developed a Christian model for race relations that can take us beyond colorblindness and anti-racism.