God's Resident-Foreigners

The first Hee-Haw of 2019 is based on words from the donkey’s owner, Balaam. Although a pagan seer, Balaam recognized a unique place for God’s people in this world. “From the hills I behold him; behold, a people dwelling alone, and not counting itself among the nations.” (Numbers 23:9)

Jesus prayed for his followers to be
“in, but not of” the world. As people “set apart by God’s Word of truth,” Jesus sends his people “into” the world. (John 17:11-18)

Jesus’ later spoke to Pilate, Rome's Procurator:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting.” (John 18:36) As I look back on 2018, I often saw Jesus’ followers fighting over political loyalties.

If the church's highest loyalties are shaped by the world's politics — conservative or progressive — this represents a sad misconception of the church’s identity and calling in the world. Do the values, norms, and goals of our culture supplant the Gospel in shaping our mindset and agendas? This new year 2019, our society will increasingly politicize. Jesus’ followers will speak truth to power, even to Caesar. But will Christians be identified by Gospel words and deeds, or by political agendas?

The Apostle Paul challenged Jesus’ followers in the city of Philippi. What shaped their values, mindset, and agendas? Philippi enjoyed a special status in Macedonia, a directly governed Colony of Rome
(Acts 16:12). Philippians enjoyed all the freedoms and legal protections of Roman citizenship. Paul urged them to divest themselves of pride in any worldly power or social status in order to share and reflect “the mind of Christ.” (Philippians 2)

A more ultimate loyalty, a kingdom agenda is offered.
“Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20) The word “citizenship” here relates to “politics” or “polis” [city]. The church is a political entity, but a polis shaped by the Gospel, not by government granted or legally protected status. Jesus’ followers are Citizens, Ambassadors, and a Colony. But of God’s kingdom, and not Caesar’s Empire.

I am reading a 25 year old classic:
“Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony,” by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. It is a book that speaks incisively about the church’s relationship to the culture around us. Is the church shaped by political agendas (Left or Right) or by God's truth that sets apart his people in this world. Each week of 2019, I plan to post a short quote from this insightful book. For starters:

“God, not nations, rules the world ... the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar ... the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”

Advent and the Original Ass

Balaam’s donkey (the "original ass") was owned by a pagan prophet who refused a bribe from the king of Moab to curse Israel. God even sent the Angel of the LORD to block the pagan seer's path.

At first, only Balaam's donkey saw the Angel with a drawn sword. When his ass refused to budge, Balaam beat him. God miraculously allowed the beast to rebuke his master
(the "first hee-haw").

“How can I curse whom God has not cursed?” Balaam said to Moab's king (Numbers 23:8). This pagan prophet even predicted the coming of a Promised One, born of a woman, to fulfill God's promise of salvation to Adam and Eve: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

Balaam foretold the doom of all the enemies of the LORD and God's people:
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob; a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab.” (Numbers 24:17)

Balaam's prophecy, if widely circulated, may have motivated the Magi to search for the Christ, after they saw a remarkable royal "star" rising over the western skies in Judea.

Twenty-six years ago, I served as the pastor of a community of God’s people whose lives were devastated by hurricane Andrew. Some thirty church families lost their homes. Many were living in FEMA trailers during the Christmas season of 1992.

To make that Advent special — for more joyful reasons — I wrote some “Advent Stories,” delivered as first-person narratives during the Sundays of Advent. Over the past decades, stories have been added, widely shared, and appreciated by friends.

You can download these
Advent Stories here. Share them with your loved ones. Enjoy!

The Arc of History bends toward God’s Kingdom

I have been reflecting on my 2016 visit to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. And on visions that Daniel interpreted to Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BC) of Babylon. And on God’s words that Jeremiah brought to the Jews exiled in Babylon.

Jerusalem fell to Babylon c. 587 BC. God’s Temple was destroyed. The Jews were sent into 70 years of exile, chastened by God. C. 575 BC, king Nebuchadnezzar built the Ishtar Gate in the city walls of Babylon, in full view of the Jewish exiles. One of the original Seven Wonders of the world, the
Ishtar Gate and its Processional Way are reconstructed and seen today in the Pergamon Museum.

Babylon’s gods were put on full display at the Ishtar Gate: the chief god
Marduk (depicted by snakes), Adad (depicted by ancient cows), and Ishtar (depicted by lions, the goddess of beauty, sex, protector of military and political power). These gods were celebrated each year, to affirm the supremacy of Marduk and Nebuchadnezzar as his political ruler on earth. At the Gate, an inscription reads, “Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the pious prince appointed by the will of Marduk, the highest priestly prince …”

So how could the Jews — and how can God’s people —
“sing the songs of Zion” while sitting “by the waters of Babylon?” (Psalm 137) Or while watching the military and ceremonial parades through the Gate of Ishtar to celebrate the gods of Babylon?

The late Sen. John McCain once said, “Our values are our interests, and our interests are our values.” But now, as Peter Bergen observes, our national
interests trump America's traditional values. Even some religious commentators argue that America's economic interests are more important than traditional morality. So, the ends justify — or at least ignore — the immoral means.

America’s gods are money, sex, military and political power. The land of our sojourning either ignores, mocks, or despises the values of Zion. But Jeremiah and Daniel offer Jesus’ followers restored perspectives — both short term and long term.

For present perspective: In Jeremiah 29, God tells his people to live as Babylonian exiles — “Build houses … plant gardens … multiply … seek the welfare [shalom] of the city where I have sent you … pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare [shalom] you will find your welfare.” Or, as American exiles, “Seek the shalom of your country, pray for its officials, build healthy institutions, pursue commonwealth, and vote your conscience (the Jews in Babylon could not vote).”

For future perspective: In Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar learns through a dream that God “changes times and seasons … removes kings and sets up kings.” Mighty Babylon was destined to fall to other kingdoms. Finally, a stone not cut by human hands, God’s kingdom, would break all earth’s kingdoms into pieces — and become a great mountain that fills the whole earth. In Daniel 4, Babylon’s king goes mad: an object lesson that rulers with arrogant hubris can become like beasts [as illustrated by English poet, painter and printmaker William Blake]. Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity only returns only when he acknowledges God’s sovereignty: “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.”

I am thankful for restored perspectives for this present and the future. Because
“… my steps had nearly slipped … when I saw the prosperity of the wicked … when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.” (Psalm 73)

Who is right? Only One

After watching the Senate Judiciary committee proceedings, I worry and pray for my three grandchildren. Two grandsons and one granddaughter will enter adolescence in an increasingly corrupt society.

Victims of sexual abuse, assault, and violence have been forced to relive their painful stories. Who will listen? Presumption of innocence until a full investigation and trial has been denied.

There is a silver lining: those who have been sexually assaulted are starting to find their voices, and to speak out, and to vote.

The reputations of both a judicial nominee and a sexual assault victim have been publicly questioned — and who is right?

Republicans were condemned for being tone deaf, and lacking compassion for sexual abuse victims. Democrats were charged with smearing a man’s life and work.

Both the nominee and the accuser were used and abused by politicians on the Left and the Right for political goals. This judiciary nomination process has lacked mercy and justice.

Each party blamed the other party’s actions, motives, and goals — to justify their own party’s actions. And yet both parties have delayed confirming judicial appointees (Garland, Kavanaugh) until after national elections.

A national commentator exasperated, “Dissolve the Senate.” Our nation is in conflict and anguish. But non-partisan Bible truths offer a MRI/EKG of our society’s ills. More importantly, the Gospel offers hope for a kingdom more unshakable than any Republic.

  • Psalm 14:3: “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good …”

  • Ecclesiastes 3:16: “I saw under the sun … in the place of justice, even there was wickedness …”

  • Isaiah 16:5: “… a throne will be established in steadfast love … on it will sit in faithfulness, in the tent of David, One who judges, and seeks justice, and is swift to do righteousness.”

  • Isaiah 42:3: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench…”

  • Isaiah 59:14: “Justice is turned back … righteousness stands far away … truth has stumbled in the public squares …”

  • Micah 6:8: “He has told you … what is good … what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

  • Romans 2:1: “… you have no excuse … in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

  • Hebrews 4:13: “No creature is hidden from [God’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of the One to whom we must give account.”

Thankful for the Good News: only one Person in history is perfectly right, the righteous Hero and Worthy Victim. Only in Jesus are “justice and mercy … reconciled, [do] steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:10)

None of us — whether Republican, Democrat, or Independent — can vindicate our lives by claiming personal virtue, or by blaming or playing the victim. We cannot justify ourselves by anything we have accomplished or by what we have suffered.

I am grateful for the one and only Hero who unjustly yet willingly took the abused Victim’s place, was violently assaulted, and absorbed my blame. Only God is the righteous Judge, and the justifier of those with faith in Jesus.

I pray for my grandsons to be godly, chaste, and respectful men. I pray for my granddaughter to be a godly, chaste, and a strong woman. I pray that all of my grandchildren will heed the words of Psalm 146:3: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” LORD, have mercy. Come, Lord Jesus!

Some Pastoral Concerns over recent Criticisms of Revoice

This is not a typical hee-haw. For starters, this is a long post, coming from weeks of concerned reflection. Also, this donkey brays mostly about world events or politics. My concerns here are for my Christian friends.

The recent Revoice conference provided a safe place for believers who experience same sex attraction (SSA). They discussed issues they face, within their stated confession of Christian orthodoxy and a traditional view of marriage. As their heterosexually-attracted brother, I share their commitments to hospitality and historic Christianity.

My appeal is pastoral. In Ephesians 4, brothers and sisters in Christ are urged to have spiritual discernment and speak the truth in love. Truth without compassion is harsh; compassion without truth is sentimentality. To speak the truth in love is how we grow together in Christ. As a Christian minister with SSA friends, I humbly offer the following Pastoral Concerns.

Heterosexually-attracted believers like me need to be quick to listen and slow to speak to our same-sex attracted brothers and sisters in Christ. SSA believers face both internal struggles and external cultural pressures — from the Left and Right, which often happens if you seek to stay in line with the Gospel. Since Revoice seeks to stay faithful to Christian orthodoxy and to historic Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality, let us consider some “costs of discipleship” these believers must face:

  • They must define their identity in the image of God, not in their sexuality. Gender is closely related to how all humans reflect God. That is clear from the Hebrew parallelism in Genesis 1:27. Gender reflects our God-given dignity and identity. But gender does not define human identity. Our SSA brothers and sisters hold a view that is rejected by most LGBTQ friends.

  • They must deny their SSA impulses, and either seek celibate spiritual friendships in community, or marry the opposite sex. These are hard choices and self-sacrificing lifestyles.

  • They face scorn when they define their identity and dignity in Christ, not in their SSA orientation. LGBTQ friends may tell our SSA brothers and sisters in Christ that they are not “true to themselves” if they reject “gender identity” to embrace God's “image-bearer identity”.

Before we charge our brothers and sisters with wrong beliefs or behaviors, we should show care as we speak and as we write about Revoice. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body … when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16)

These specific criticisms of Revoice have raised concerns for me:
  • Criticism of the PCA host church, which provided a safe forum to openly discuss challenges that SSA Christians face. If we fail to offer such forums, we drive fellow orthodox believers, who experience SSA, out from gospel-centered churches, and into unbelieving LGBTQ communities. So I commend the St. Louis PCA congregation for their courageous hospitality.

  • Criticism of Revoice motives and goals. Is Revoice making worldly accommodation? Or is Revoice imitating the incarnation? Jesus was criticized as the “friend of sinners.” Revoice says its mission is to remain faithful to the truth, while engaging a broken, sin-distorted world. Jesus prayed for our spiritual unity and our protection as we reach out in mission to the world (John 17:11-19). Jesus sanctified himself, to sanctify us in truth. The Father sent Jesus into the world. Jesus sends us into the world. We need God’s truth and protection, but not for worldly accommodation or tribal isolation.

  • Criticism of Revoice speakers. There may be real concerns, but we will never agree with every author’s published writings or statements. This is no reason to discredit a conference which offered space to openly discuss and debate many hard, controversial issues.

  • Criticism of views of original sin, mortification, and sanctification. This is an area that merits close self-examination and evaluation. What is Revoice’s doctrine of sin? And, are our views completely biblical?

Before we charge our SSA brothers and sisters in Christ with either wrong beliefs or sinful practices, we should ask ourselves:
  • Do we truncate our doctrine of sin and the fall? Our sinful hearts, our inherited sin natures, are the inward source of outward sinful behaviors (Mark 7:17-23). But sin’s entry into the world is manifested throughout a fallen and distorted creation. That includes our inherited genetic traits.

A biblical example: Jesus’ disciples tried to connect a man’s congenital blindness to personal sin: “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” Jesus did not trace the source of his disability to particular sins. Instead, Jesus pointed to God’s purpose in sanctification: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:1-3)
  • Do we condemn those physically or genetically disabled when they cannot “mortify” inherited conditions? No, we offer them mercy. Most Revoice participants acknowledge SSA to be a fallen world condition, not a “born this way” gender identity. When they do this, they are criticized by the secular LGBTQ community.

  • Do we truncate our doctrine of mortification? SSA is not disconnected from original sin. All of us are extensively bent toward sexual immorality. Same-sex attraction may be differently directed, but is not different in kind. Sinful lusts also distort opposite-sex attraction. Are there occasional clinical cases of hermaphroditism (ovotesticular disorder)? Do we deny SSA genetic predispositions inherited from birth? If we do that, we may prescribe moralistic, behavioral, and “reparative” therapies to “put to death your SSA.” But those discredited approaches do great harm.

  • Do we truncate our doctrine of sanctification? Growth in holiness conforms us to the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29), but does not make us married heterosexuals. We should respect SSA brothers and sisters in Christ who choose a celibate lifestyle. Jesus was celibate. This is sanctification into Christ-likeness that few disciples are able to “receive” as a gift from God (Matthew 19:10-12).

In an earlier post, I note that Jesus' call to discipleship (“deny himself … take up his cross daily … follow me”) in our times involves not only turning from self-satisfying behavior, but also from self-defining identity.

Revoice critics include The Gospel Reformation Network which published “A Time to Stand — Revoice and the Future of the PCA.” It would be wise for SSA believers, while acknowledging their SSA, to not label themselves as “Gay-Christians.” All hyphenated labels (“X-Christian, Y-Christian”) carry the risk of “add-on” self-justification. Cf. Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It would be better if all of us, same-sex or opposite-sex attracted, self-identified merely as fellow brothers and sisters, and fellow strugglers, in Christ. Jesus alone is the justifier and the sanctifier of our lives.

In May, 2016, The Gospel Coalition published “You are not Your Sexuality.” In it, Sam Allberry observes: “We must respond to the secular narrative with a Christian one … The world needs to hear same-sex attracted Christians like me share their experiences of God’s goodness in this issue.” This is profoundly true and worth a listen.

Allberry offers five important lessons that the church can learn from our SSA brothers and sisters in Christ:
1. Your identity is in Christ. 2. Discipleship is hard. 3. God’s Word is good. 4. The church is vital. 5. The future is glorious.

I commend Allberry’s video for his orthodoxy and his contextual testimony as our SSA brother in Christ.

My appeal here is to fellow believers, both same-sex-attracted and opposite-sex-attracted, to pursue truth-in-love and mutual accountability in the Body of Christ. We need to listen to one another with an irenic tone, with compassion, and with respect for the costs of discipleship faced by SSA Christians. They are not “others” in Christ's church, or the “Gay Christians.” They are our brothers and sisters. I want to see the works of God displayed in their lives. We have much to learn from SSA Christian friends.

As an opposite-sex attracted brother (who struggles with heterosexual lust), I care for my SSA Christian friends. Their commitment to historic Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage provokes criticism from the LGBTQ community. That’s why I grieve when my SSA friends are also condemned by fellow believers, or only find a welcome in gay-affirming churches. For them, and for us, celibacy or traditional marriage are hard and self-sacrificing discipleship choices. Within the bounds of biblical truth, we should offer mutual support and not judgment.

I invite your feedback on this Pastoral Appeal. Use this contact link to email me. Note: all comments posted on social media will be deleted.