Stay in it (part one)

Do you have books on your bookshelf just for the title? You haven’t even read the book and aren’t sure you need to; the title all by itself is enough. One of those books for me is Eugene Peterson’s Long Obedience in the Same Direction. That title was a revelation about sanctification. It is obedience over feeling. Just stay with it. This is not waiting for something to happen. This is staying power. A long obedience.

Elizabeth O’Connor’s Journey Inward, Journey Outward basically defined my vocation. It taught me everything I needed to know about Wesleyan theology — personal holiness, social holiness — and what healthy community looks like. This is Wesleyan theology. It is a journey inward that feeds the journey outward.

Just this month I had another one of those moments, but it wasn’t a book title. It was a song title. Iris DeMent is the artist who sings it right; the composer is Sanford Massengill. The song is, I don’t want to get adjusted to this world. I will go ahead and warn you now (because you’ll want to look it up) that the theology breaks down in the song lyrics but the title by itself saves me all over again.

I don’t want to get adjusted to this world.

It puts into words that low-level uneasiness I have with so much that passes for acceptable in our culture. I’m not talking about the coarsening of society or what most middle-aged people think about social media. I’m talking about that thing that sits in my gut that says pastoring must be more art than technique, that my passion for it must run deeper than the anxiety generated by whoever’s blog pops up on my newsfeed with the title, “Five things you have to do now before your church implodes.”

Discipleship must be more organic than commercial farming. A relationship with Jesus is meant be fertilized with intrigue over all there is to know about God, not with a growing pile of shoulds and oughts.

(Can we just acknowledge that the word “should” sounds a lot like fertilizer? And I don’t need any more fertilizer in my life!)

Passions are not stoked with “shoulds” and “oughts” and I don’t want to get adjusted to that kind of world that runs on anxiety and shame instead of real adventure and bold, holy mistakes. So how do I stay in it without getting to adjusted to it?

The problem with the song, I don’t want to get adjusted to this world, is that the lyrics wander off into a kind of escapism that masquerades as longing for Jesus when really, its just, “Get me out of this!” I know that kind of escapism. I’m prone to it.

I was talking to someone not too long ago who’d had a season of professional ministry in his past. It was a good season for him, but in the end he had to leave it. He’d gone through a divorce and needed a better-paying job and something more than youth ministry to keep the boat floating. But its been a few years now and he’s discouraged. He looks back on those youth ministry days with a kind of longing. He was trying to get me to sympathize so he said, “Imagine someone told you that you were doing great but you needed to step down from your ministry any way, and so for six months they told you that you needed to stay clear of that ministry, and that you couldn’t talk to anyone or make any decisions. How would that make you feel?”

I have to be real here. In that moment (maybe it had been a bad day), that sounded wonderful to me. All I could think was, Really? Are you kidding?! I’d kill for that.”

So yes … I understand escapism. But that is not what Paul was after when he told us not to get adjusted to this world. Paul said (Romans 12:2), “Don’t copy (conform to) the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” Not by changing the circumstances, but by changing the way we process them. Not by getting us out of it (whatever ‘it” is), but by changing our perspective on what is. Thats the point — not escape but transformation. It is about seeing the world from the Kingdom down rather than from the ground up. And the power to stay in it lies within the Holy Spirit. We seek his presence because he is the one with power to change our perspective. David Thomas says, “The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us go down into the deeper places, so we can have courage to be loved and face our stuff.”

Let that sink in: “The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us go down into the deeper places, so we can have courage to be loved and face our stuff.”

This is Wesleyan Holiness at its best: It is a call to live a holy life under the influence of a Holy Spirit who leads us into greater and deeper love.

I wonder what thing you’ve got right now that you’re hoping to escape? What situation seems so radioactive that what you’d really like is to run, even if the alternative probably isn’t life-giving? What thing seems too big, too hard, too much … toxic?

Can I encourage you to stay in it and allow the Holy Spirit to turn that toxic space into holy ground? Can I challenge you to stay in it until you’re able to see it as God sees it? That’s no guarantee that it isn’t hard or bad or not his best, but it is a challenge to stay open to the possibility that he can work all things together for good. Or that maybe this hard thing is exactly your next step if you’re going to sink into the deeper places where you can be loved and face your stuff.

Friends, let the Holy Spirit do his work in you, because the world has met its quota of tired souls who’d rather just escape, but  the Kingdom Church is starving — and the fields are white — for Spirit-filled followers who are willing to stay in it … to have their minds transformed and their world views altered by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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When Jesus Gets Angry (or, How Jesus Knows You)

Find Mark 1:41 in your Bible. How does that line read in your version? How did Jesus feel about this leper who asked for healing?

Some versions say Jesus was filled with compassion for the leper who came to him for healing. My version (NIV) and a few other versions say Jesus was indignant. By my experience, there is a pretty wide gap between indignant and compassionate, so which is it?

There is a temptation to let that difference shake our confidence in the Bible or at least in our English translations of it. In fact, a famous atheist uses this very word in this very verse — alternately translated as compassion or indignant — as part of his argument against scriptural integrity.

I had not noticed this odd word before last week, when folks at Mosaic were exploring this passage together using the SOAP method of inductive study. When someone else in the room noticed the difference between their translation and mine, we went scrambling. It turns out we’d stumbled on a big debate in Bible translation circles. Someone has written a whole book on this one word — 609 pages worth of debate between compassion and indignation.

Bruce Metzger says that of the 20,000 lines of the New Testament, only 40 lines have debatable translations. That means there is agreement among scholars around about 99.6% of what we read in the Bible. Nonetheless, there are going to be a few hard words, some things we have to wrestle with, some words or phrases that don’t translate easily into English. This word in Mark 1:41 is one of them.

So … is it compassion or indignation? A couple of versions even use the word “pity” or “anger.” But pity is not compassion. I want someone to feel compassion … but pity, not so much. Likewise, anger and indignation are not the same thing. Indignation and pity are look-down-your-nose words while anger and compassion are feelings that can actually drive us toward people, not away from them.

According to my friend, Dr. Ben Witherington, the Greek word refers to the kind of feeling that comes from your bowels. The closest expression to the Greek is “the bowels of compassion.” The feeling evoked is something fierce or passionate — not just feeling compassion but the kind of concern that moves a person to compassion. Not just aggravated at a disease or a man who has lost his drive to go hard after his healing, but angry at all that has sapped the hope out of him.

And I’m thinking about Jesus as a healer and shepherd and it slays me to think that maybe God has inspired the use of a word here that means both things at once. Because a person can be both angry and compassionate at the same time. In fact, a person can be fiercely compassionate, moved to go after someone stuck in pit while angry at all the things that got them there.

As a pastor, I feel this bowel-level burden for people. How often does my broken heart for someone push me to hang onto them long past good sense? How often do I get so angry with the demon someone is wrestling with that I’m moved to a simmering rage over the stubborn addiction, the serial relationships, the dysfunction? How desperately I feel the heavy weight of habits and wounds that leave people stuck,  compassionate toward the person but indignant toward what got them there.

Of course, Jesus got angry! Not all anger is without compassion, and not all compassion is … well … without passion. Not just feeling compassion but moved by it to go after the healing.

To find this kind of complex, nuanced word in the Bible only makes this book more trustworthy, not less. I am stunned by the depth of it, the beauty of it, the brilliance of God himself. To hear in God’s Word his identification with the everyday work of a pastor like me is just stunning. In this word, Jesus sees not just the leper, but me.

Maybe this word in Mark 1 isn’t your word, but today I am ever more compelled to urge you toward a regular and devotional reading of the Bible. I am convinced that if you will go digging — if you will find your own practice of inductive, devotional Bible reading — God will meet you and show you treasures and even show you yourself and his heart for you. He’ll show you that you are known at the deepest levels, in the places you may be most lonely.

Jesus knows you. And once you know that, you won’t be able to not share it with a lost and hurting world.

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