Three months ago our 17-year-old son shared with us that he no longer held to our Christian faith and that he was in a relationship with a young man. However, our journey with our son and his sexuality began far earlier than a fall day back in October. In this episode of The Everyday Missionary, I have sought to retrace our steps as a family from 12-years-old until that autumn afternoon. In doing so, I seek to highlight some of the things I believe we did thoughtfully as parents in light of our faith, but also some of the things I know I handled badly. Equally, I share how there were things Gray did right in this process, but also things he handled poorly (though I share no specifics regarding Gray since that is his story to be shared in Pt. 4). My hope in this series is that our experience can act as an aid to better handling such events in life with grace, truth, awareness, compassion, seeking and granting forgiveness, and love even in our differences.
One of my “insider” interests is learning how other pastors handle sermon prep. What I have discovered is no two pastors are ever exactly the same except that all have a process, every step in the process is intentional and the whole thing begins with with an initial Monday morning panic, “Can I make a message out of this by Sunday?”
My process isn’t terribly novel. In general terms, I prefer to preach either expositionally (through books of the Bible) or theologically (some people call this “topical” and yet my focus is more on the theology of a theme than merely good advice giving). Where I may differ from many of my fellow preachers is that my prep is sliced into two distinct environments. It begins in the lab of my study and ends in the field that is a bar.
In The Lab That Is A Study
I recently read an article that said pastors should not have offices, but studies. I like that. So I have a study. My study is like a lab; a controlled environment with everything I need for the task of research. I begin in the lab by copy-and-pasting a double-spaced version of my biblical text for the week into a Word document. I then read the passage over and over, identifying patterns, scribbling notes, logging insights and asking random questions with each pass. I would guess I scan and scribble through the passage around 20 times, usually finding that the most valuable insights hit around the 15th pass. From there I do my exegetical work. For those unfamiliar with our hip clergy nomenclature, exegesis is when we seek to understand the meaning of a book of the Bible in its original language, culture and context. It may sound dull, but for Bible nerds this is the biblical peanut butter to our theological jelly. Once that is complete, I pile my desk with books and read till I feel I need to unbuckle my mental belt like its a post Thanksgiving Day dinner.
As the above process unfolds I regularly shake out the cramping in my right hand. I’m feverishly jot down informational aggregate on my narrow rule TOPS white legal pad, using my Pentel 0.7mm mechanical pencil and rotating through my pile of Ticonderoga Emphasis highlighters (shameless product placements) to mark varied themes with various colors (yellow is technical, green is illustrative, pink is pithy, orange is for us today, blue is transitional and purple is key points). Finally, I figure out the key breaks in the passage that will act as transitions through the sermon and I put each of those sections into a PowerPoint build. By the end of my time “in the lab”, I have logged around 20-30 hours and piled up anywhere between 10-20 pages of notes. With my lab research done I grab my ESV Bible, research notes, TOPS pad, Pentel pencil and head to a bar.
In The Field That Is A Bar
Labs are pristine, antiseptic and protected. That gives us the ability to research in ways that are ideal, controlled and precise. Field research is messy, inconvenient and unpredictable, yet true to life. A local bar (a cantina technically) is my field research. It is the last stage in my process and the location where I put the majority of my sermons together.
As I walk in, the familiar Latino bartender greets me with our customary ritual, “Amigo! Mac and Jack?” Mac and Jack’s is hands down the best African Amber on the planet and is brewed just over the hill. I give him my usual thumbs-up and find a place to sit down. My table is the far back corner. It gives me the best view of the room.
On this day there are two middle-aged women at the far booth. Each has a margarita the size of a kiddy pool. They are loud, animated and angry – at a man. The one on the left is mad at her man. The one on the right is mad at the same man, but only as a show of solidarity for the friend across from her. Hell hath no furry like two angry women with a gallon of margarita between them.
I smirk and think, “I’m glad I’m not that guy.” And I write.
Further to my right, two men sit at the bar. One is retired, has a cane, wears a veteran hat and is eager to initiate a conversation with anyone who sits within three seats. A couple seats down is a young guy, blue collar, no wedding ring and looks like he came straight from moving a mountain of dirt with his bare hands and then used his face as the wash cloth. He’s sipping Fireball, watching the soccer game and riding that fine line with the vet of being just polite enough to keep conversation at arms length without being disrespectful.
I’m like the younger guy. I’m sad for the older guy. And I write.
Closer to my immediate left are two young women in their 20’s. I can hear how the one feels betrayed because she just found out her boyfriend has a porn issue. Her friend seeks to console her, assuring her of how the boyfriend in question doesn’t deserve her. Suddenly one of the the two loud margarita ladies unexpectedly shouts, “Men Suck!” and the consoling 20 something responds, “Amen!” (Yes, you would be surprised how much “Amen” comes up in a bar). The laughter and camaraderie cuts away the anger and betrayal for a few brief seconds before reality returns, and with reality the conversations.
I grieve. I pray. And I write.
Behind me around the corner is the restaurant area. Just within earshot I can hear a family. The newborn baby is crying and big brother (who may be all of 4-5 years old) is repeating, “I’m bored! I’m bored!” Dad must be lost on his phone because of the terse female voice that comes next, “Are you going to deal with your son?”
I remember. And I write.
After a few minutes a third man appears at the bar. I’ve seen him a few times before. White collar, wedding ring, never really talks. He sits at the bar for one drink in a small glass and leaves. It seems to be his soft space between stressful worlds.
I look. I ponder. I pray. And I write.
It is in this immersive environment where I begin to construct my final thoughts; pushing what I have studied through an ether vastly different than the atmosphere of my study. As I do my mind bends toward various questions as the message unfolds:
How would people in a bar understand this?
Would people in a bar know what to do with this?
Do people in a bar even care about this?
What biases might the two younger women have about the importance of this?
What words or ideas would the unmarried dirt covered guy be unfamiliar with?
What questions would the married business guy and his one drink have about this?
What confusion might be stirred up for the worn out parents with their two young kids?
What objections would the loud margarita ladies have about this?
What conclusions would the retired veteran have about this?
What humor, illustrations, word pictures or pop culture references can I use that most of the people in a bar would instantly understand?
What religious clichés are so loaded that they might sabotage what I believe people need to understand regarding this?
How can I do all of this and still ensure that Jesus, above all else, is honored and pleased with what I say?
Now obviously I don’t systematically walk through these questions after every point. They are more the natural consequence of the environment as I compile the sermon. Completing my message in a bar forces an awareness of and sensitivity to people in real life. It unlocks the questions in a way far more authentic than anything I might duplicate by just imagining people in the isolation of my study. And I do this, not in the hopes of understanding the “lost”, but so as to understand people; not the least of which being the “saved” ones. The bar is a transparent microcosm of the same realities, challenges and conversations “saved” people face. A bar is filled with the same kind of demographic diversity that a church seeks to create. And ultimately a bar is popular for the same reason a church; because people are looking for a safe place in which some seek to hide, others want to connect and still others invest to belong.
Mind you a bar isn’t a perfect place, but neither are people. Praise God that His Bible, His Gospel and His Grace always is.
The original Good Friday was not so good. In fact it was downright a punch in the gut followed by a brisk boot to the head. By the end of the day a pagan government flanked by a corrupt religion had managed to kill God’s Son, instill fear in God’s followers and give the illusion that God’s plans were buried in the dirt. As night fell on the angst-ridden apostles they found themselves lamenting the end of their movement along with the inevitability of their demise. Yep, it wasn’t exactly a Good Friday from anyone’s perspective: except God’s. For on that Friday many things yet to be seen were transpiring and one easily overlooked reality is that more than one “god” was slain that day.
Part of the angst of the Apostles on that Friday evening was rooted in a problem they were unwittingly blind to at the time. The problem? They had the right God, but they saw Him in selectively wrong ways. They thought Jesus was to be their partisan judge in an earthly court, their commanding general in a Roman invasion and their kingly monarch in a not-really-so-new-but-at-least-Jewish global empire. In short, they believed in a politically empowered messianic idol more than understood Jesus the Messiah who stands outside yet over all human rulers. Therefore when things fell apart, their idol – by way of God’s ruining grace – was slain. So while every part of it looked like a really bad Friday, it was the beginnings of the first truly Good Friday.
In thinking about this, as it pertained to the SCOTUS decision this last Friday, I couldn’t help but run through some parallels of how we too as Christians may have idolized certain things within our country. For a while I have noticed how we have slipped into a form of idolatrous doublethink regarding political powers. In one sense we have generally affirmed that government is not the solution to our problems, but then every election cycle we roll into sounding like politicians or parties are the key to curtailing the very problems we are certain government can’t fix. Now in saying this please don’t take my words further than I intend. I believe that every American Christian has an important public responsibility to be involved in the political process and some even running for office, but my suspicion is that we have gone further than mere civic duty; we may have set our faith and fear in it. We appear to have gone beyond casting our vote to placing our hope and trust and anxiety and distress in the outcomes of the civic arena; making idols out of platforms, methods, legislation and their aftereffects. Some idols we feared so greatly we made a point to desecrate them as often as possible, alarmed that they will rise up and overpower our rights. Other idols we opted to venerate in the hopes they would stem the tide of the idols we feared. Hence we played a game of “my idol can beat your idol,” and now we sit dismayed at the fact that “their” idols are shoving “our” idols butts in the cultural dirt. Yes, the political arm of Christianity is getting a beat down, but oh what a glorious beat down it will be if we are willing to endure it.
In relationship to times of opposition the Apostle said, “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.” While some may speak of the need for God to judge America, we must remember that Peter here says judgment comes first to us. The difference however is that for the Christian God’s judgment is not to dole out sinful penalty, but to forge spiritual maturity. In light of this…
Perhaps the events of Friday, and the feared future consequences of those events, are actually the beginnings of a spectacular grace designed to filter out the worldly contaminates that have inadvertently mixed with what is to be an other-worldly faith.
Perhaps God is stripping us of our power, our privilege and our position specifically so all that remains is living by His Power, His Privilege and His Position.
Perhaps the best way we were ever going to love others selflessly was to be stripped of our ability to resist others socially.
Perhaps what our prayers most required, what our faith most desired and what our thankfulness most needed was being socially humbled so as to display Spirit-filled humility.
Perhaps because our idols have fallen, all other idols will eventually follow in suit so that Jesus reigns in the lives of an eternal multitude secured specifically because of the witness of our temporary discomfort.
Perhaps we will find a new found anguish for people who are estranged from God’s grace more than be agitated that they break God’s rules.
Perhaps by not being as focused on winning the culture wars for Jesus we will now be more focused on winning a war worn culture to Jesus.
Perhaps because we gladly pass through the fires of reviling with only blessing on our lips the embers of revival will settle around our country.
Perhaps we will be freed from the fear of all earthly calamity and rejoice in certitude of our eternal certainty.
Perhaps we will now know with steely assurance that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Perhaps what we least wanted we most required to be holy as God is holy.
Perhaps with less and less we will realize more and more Jesus meets every need.
Perhaps with all our idols broken down that is when His Cross, His Gospel, His Church and His Glory will be most lifted up.
Perhaps what feels like a very bad situation will be the beginning of a very good opportunity. It wouldn’t be the first time world changing things sprang from the ruining grace of the Friday God.
For as long as I can recall the Christian majority and uniquely my clan of conservative evangelicalism, has enjoyed a seat at the table of cultural influence. We have shaped policy, mentored presidents and maintained a moral status quo that was generally accepted or at least tolerated by the overarching populace. Yet much of this was not particularly gospel oriented or even biblically saturated. Sure, the moral expectations flowed at times from biblical passages, but the means and spirit in which they were communicated were guilty of a pretext without a context. With the regularity of a high-fiber diet, a new protest, petition or picket would be announced to drive back the intruding woes of society. For as soon as a group or corporation would push Christian boundaries, the word “boycott” would bellow from the religious empowered like a Christianized Bat-Signal; threatening financial penalty toward any entity that did not keep their whitewashed tombs looking white. Never mind if the immoral were going to hell just so long as they embraced our façade of ethical propriety.
The actions of the last five decades have won us no audiences, built us no bridges and as we are seeing today secured us no power. But what it has done is build a societal pressure that has grown weary, even vengeful, toward God’s moral referees and now is their season to set things right. And in a feat, almost Belichickian, the other side has stolen our playbook and now suddenly we don’t like how the game is being played. But this is precisely how we prodded them to play. Instead of modeling the appeal of a transformed life and the supremacy of the implanted word we leveraged the power of politics, embargoes and rhetoric to force moral capitulation without spiritual regeneration. So now what has been good for the Christian goose is even better for the cultural gander. This brave new world that is rapidly cycling before us is not exclusive of our doing, but we have contributed to spinning it up.
So how shall we then live? That is the real question before us. Not, “How can we get back to how we used to live?” That season has passed and it’s fruit has been both seedless and tasteless. The world around us has no want of, nor fear regarding the moral arbitrators. But more importantly, it’s not what they need. Our world doesn’t need wittier, pithier more provocative Christians who score points with the choir, paint cross hairs on their chest and agitate the culture. That is a law of diminishing returns. What our world needs to see, and will find hard to reject in the long game, is a people un-phased by the ebb and flow of shifting norms. People who embrace biblical convictions so deeply, they graciously live above the turbulence brought on by media, rhetoric and misguided reforms. For every time we have been rejected by a culture, it has been our role as the joyfully persecuted that has produced systemic cultural transformation.
Unfortunately it is this swelling persecution for which we are unprepared as American Christians. We sensationalized it for those who would be “Left Behind”, but we didn’t actually prepare for sticking around. We were not ready to become the slighted voice. We were not primed to be the distrusted. We were not braced for our community’s growing suspicion and condemnation. We littered the fruited plain with consumer savvy churches that spoon fed good advice to make life good and pleasant (some of which will simply embrace the current culture to sidestep earthly rejection), but we did not prepare Christians for the bad seasons that would require them to stand up, suffer ridicule and be counted among the cultural transgressors. Yet this is precisely where God flexes through his people; when they receive retribution with rejoicing. For the current conditions are not new conditions, but they are the consistent conditions in which God wields the grace of revival if we let go of our heritage of social controlling and embrace what it means to be spiritually compelling. And by compelling I do not mean cooler, looser or quieter. I mean clearer, godlier and bolder than we have been. Our error was not that we were too committed, but rather we were too committed to the wrong things. We boycotted over matters of the Law at the cost of the Gospel. Yet now is our opportunity to set our house in order, to embrace our exile, to set our vision on an eternal culture who’s maker and builder is God and thus elevate here and now the one thing that changes everything: the life-transforming message of Jesus.
In the current lexicon the word “tolerant” is about as loaded as a pub-hopping Irishman on St. Paddy’s Day. It’s the brave new litmus test that discerns whether one is an enlightened and understanding citizen, or an outdated bigot who deserves to be branded with an “ic” or “ist” tacked onto the back of some culturally untouchable word. Because of this, I need to take a moment to unpack how I’m using the word. I will do this by differentiating between new and true tolerance.
The “new tolerance,” as DA Carson christened it, is the pervading cultural pressure to affirm the beliefs and behaviors of others, provided those beliefs and behaviors are legal, consensual and/or harmless to the majority. Now, much of this definition I am prepared to live by, with the exception of the pivotal word, “affirm”. See, I expect my culture to engage in things that I sometimes find to be wrong. Equally, I expect my culture to look upon some of my beliefs and behaviors the same way. That is the nature of a democratic and multicultural society. But to impose the added requirement of affirmation is a game changer.
Lexically the idea of affirmation is an artificial addition and has nothing to do with the “true tolerance.” The Oxford Dictionary defines “tolerant” as, “Showing willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” Based on this, tolerance is actually what is required of a person when they specifically do not support something. At best, tolerance asks us to respectfully co-exist with differences we do not affirm for the sake of civility and discourse.
Thus for the evangelical, true tolerance does not require unfiltered affirmation of beliefs or behaviors the Bible calls sinful, but it does require a relational acceptance of all people in the hope that the transforming grace of the gospel will penetrate their lives. In this sense evangelicals must rise up as the most truly tolerant group in culture for seven reasons:
1. Because We Must Compensate For Our Crazy Drunk Uncles.
Do you have a crazy uncle? He shows up at Thanksgiving wild-eyed, outspoken,a bubble off center and guzzling Pabst Blue Ribbon like a camel on empty at a desert oasis. In the media it seems they often manage to find evangelicalism’s crazy drunk uncle to give airtime to. The result is that many who are not evangelicals think the crazy evangelical who made it as a sound bite on “The Daily Show” is how all evangelicals think and act.
I recently experienced this firsthand when a group of people automatically assumed that since I am an evangelical pastor I hate the president, despise the gay community, watch Fox News, listen to Rush Limbaugh and carry a gun. That last point is true; the rest is not. I don’t tune in to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. I believe the president to be a well-intended man in a very difficult position. I care about the gay community as I do the rest of my culture. And as to the gun I carry, I don’t do it to make a point at Target, and I am not a member of the NRA. This doesn’t mean I agree or disagree with everything on Fox News, from Rush Limbaugh, by President Obama, in the gay community or about gun rights, but in the spirit of true tolerance I don’t need to. Rather I need to know how to graciously relate Jesus to all the views that swirl around me even regardless of whether I agree or disagree.
Only by going out of our way to establish caring friendships, so as to show people something beyond one-dimensional caricatures, will they begin to see real life evangelicals differently than our crazy drunk uncle TV pundits.
2. Because We Are To Be Tolerant, Just As God Is Tolerant.
Romans 2:4 says, “4 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that His kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” (NLT). Every day that Jesus does not return is another massive global tolerance campaign. If it’s good enough for Jesus to be tolerant it’s good enough for those of us who follow Jesus. And the reason for the tolerance is profoundly missional; it’s intended to see people turn from their sins. Therefore, sitting on the other side of a cultural fence lobbing condemnations and frustrations will never be as effective as crossing the fence in the spirit of godly kindness in the hopes of seeing someone we love come to repentance.
3. Because We Need To Be Understanding To Reach The Unbelieving.
I think about Paul at Mars Hill. His first reaction upon reaching Athens was nothing short of disgust. It says in Acts 17:16 that when he saw the sheer scope of idols flocking the city “his spirit was provoked within him.” (ESV). The word “provoked” really doesn’t cut it here. The original Greek word paroxyno is where we get paroxysm, “a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity.” When people looked at Paul that day he had a gag reflex kicking in with a nervous twitch flapping over one eye. That is, until he recalled that this city didn’t know any better. They were doing exactly what they knew how to do because no one had shown them anything different. From this Paul downshifts and begins to relate to the people of the city. He begins to compliment them, speak their cultural language, and even quote from one of the very altars that caused him to flip his phylactery a few days earlier. In doing so he has no intention of selling out (as verses 31-32 eventually shows with the words such as repent and judgment), rather he is pressing in. Ultimately Paul chose suffering long, in the hopes of seeing others rescued from suffering forever.
4. Because We Have To Model What Actual Tolerance Is.
The new tolerance is as hypocritical as a chain-smoking dad busting his kid for sneaking a cigarette. It’s a selective acceptance that tolerates only what it affirms and stands rigidly intolerant to those who disagree. And those who advocate the new tolerance are not spending a great deal of time encouraging one another to love those who disagree with them. Just follow some of the recent trends in the media and you will see exactly how the new tolerance treats those who hold a different vision of the world. The exercise of true tolerance is branded as intolerance, which in turn solicits, even demands, banishment or shaming as the appropriate response.
For evangelicalism, however, part of our core command is to love our neighbor. We are reminded perpetually of the need to love people right where they are. To invest in those whom we may disagree with, to turn the other cheek when provoked and to even do good to an all out enemy. I realize we have not always done this well. Far too often we have slipped into imposed morality or personal offense, but we must continue to encourage one another in what the Bible commands of us toward those who don’t believe or behave as we do.This is true tolerance; it is the tolerance that evangelicals are the best at displaying and we must continue to model this more than ever in a culture that is losing the spirit of true diversity.
5. Because We Already Acknowledge Our Own Sinful Short Comings.
Evangelicals believe they are saved, grown and completed by gospel grace alone. It is a faith of walking shoes, not work boots. Thus when evangelicalism begins to sound chiefly like a religion of morality, we missed a turn somewhere. We know we don’t earn our standing before God; rather we follow the One who earned that standing for us – Jesus. Because our salvation is only by the grace of God, we should humbly be aware of our own sins, our various faults and our continued weakness. This is exactly why tolerance is necessary. Paul himself even says in Colossians 3, “12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (ESV). True tolerance doesn’t excuse sin, but it understands the struggle with sin, comes alongside in gentleness and points to the grace that can free and refresh. A good, honest look at the sinner in the mirror, coupled with gratitude for God’s grace, helps us to love the sinner across the street in true tolerance.
6. Because We Are The Ones Who Can Maintain The Importance Of Both Tolerance And Repentance.
The new tolerance seeks to free people from their sins by telling them their sins are not sinful. It is humanities’ attempt to save itself from its sins through the gospel of anesthetization. Yet the only road to abundant life passes through the door of repentance and grace. This is where evangelicals have the perfect combination. In true tolerance we can connect with people in a way that displays legitimate acceptance and love, but not at the cost of sharing the enduring message of God’s love that can forgive people of their sins and produce in them the life that excusing sin will never produce.
7. Because We Believe Only The Gospel Can Change People.
Culture wars are not for evangelicals. Every culture war has a deeper root that is the real war, and that root is sin. Not sins, but the actual cause, the nature of sin itself, Original Sin. Therefore to think that culture is the war is like battling the fever to cure the cancer. The real conflict is internal, supernatural, generational and trans cultural. It is a war that invades every layer of life in every person’s life, thus nothing done through the means of this world can change our deepest problem. Only an invasion from outside this world can change the sin of this world…
Which is why God sent Jesus.
Which is why Jesus received the Cross.
Which is why the Spirit raised Jesus.
Which is why Jesus sent the Spirit to testify of Himself and God.
God invaded our broken sphere in the person of Jesus to bring true transformation through the Spirit. Therefore…
Only the Gospel can confront our cultural sins.
Only the Gospel can restore our cultural soul.
Only the Church carries the Gospel that can change the culture we are called to love in the true tolerance of God.