Tag Archives: christian living

The Lord Laughs

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord holds them in derision. (Psalm 2:1-4)

There are remarkably few treatments to be found in theological libraries about humor in Scripture. Most of those few that exist seem to operate from the conclusion that what humor is in the Bible is in isolated pockets. Sure, when Ehud skewers the tyrant Eglon, losing the sword in his rolls of fat and causing him to soil himself, we can’t help but suspect we’re meant to chuckle. A bit of Hebrew or Greek suddenly makes the reader aware of groan-worthy puns which crop up in the oddest places. However, taken in sum, almost everyone agrees that the Bible is a Very Serious Book, and we should be Very Serious People if we are to use it as the foundation for our faith.

This Very Serious approach to Christianity, however, seems to me unsatisfactory. We might gain some hint of this simply by noticing its effects. A humorless Christianity is dehumanizing, lopping off our emotional legs so that all we can do is sit on the stubs and point accusing fingers. A faith unable to chuckle will do the craziest things without getting the joke. One look at some Christians’ ridiculous wardrobes, our trite fiction or our bizarre attempts at spirituality betrays an insanity which even a modicum of irony would undo.

However, the deeper problem with Very Serious Christianity is that it misses the point – the punch line – in Scripture itself. Scripture is, at heart, a comedy. In one sense this is true simply by dint of the way the story ends. In the categories of the dramatists, we are in a story with and unapologetically happy ending. All the deaths, all the exits stage left, get brought back for the finale of the resurrection, and in a world made new the players live happily ever after. This note of hope, and the joy it engenders, should in itself call the grimness of too much spirituality into question. One wonders what Very Serious Christians will do in a world with no more tears or heartaches, and (one assumes) with no more frowns.

There is also another, deeper sense in which Scripture is comedic. While God is certainly a character who is not to be trifled with, every other character (which means every character like us) is portrayed in the most ironic and slapstick terms. Seriously, go read about Abraham’s brilliant plans to tell Pharoah his wife is his sister (twice). Watch Israel’s kings run back and forth like indecisive tumbleweeds, worshipping idols and begging God for help based on which way the weather seems to blow. Listen to the disciples talk with Jesus, and marvel at the way a moment of insight is almost always immediately followed by one of monumental stupidity. The antics of humanity are enough to rival the slapstick of the Three Stooges or the ridiculousness of the Royal Tenenbaums.

This is why, as the psalmist notes, God laughs at the schemes of man. When Very Serious Men gather their might against the Lord’s anointed, while they might feel dignified and important, the truth is that they are a joke. Their frailty, their presumption, and their shortsightedness combine to prove them to be nothing but the oafish buffoon included in every play and movie for comedic relief. Go read the prophets, who mock idolaters for being no brighter than the lumps of stone they worship, who ridicule the oppressors and their wives who are as fat as the cows of Bashan.

It isn’t just the wicked who are worthy of a chuckle in Scripture either. The righteous are too. God reminds Israel that He saved them not because of their greatness but because they are the least among the nations. Paul tells us God saved the foolish and the weak to show His power in their midst. God is on a serious mission, but we are chosen to be his players because, well, it’s ridiculous to think we’re doing His work on our own. Indeed, salvation itself is in a sense comedic: we are sinners made righteous, saved by the ultimate irony of the cross and resurrection. We are not saved by our Very Serious attempts to justify ourselves, but by ruefully surveying our best efforts and recognizing them as piles of something which might offend the Very Serious reader (but which Paul has no problem referring to in the crudest terms).

Of course, everything I just said is only one side of Scripture’s perspective. There is a deeply serious aspect to everything in the Biblical story: our sin is a grave offense, our misdeeds cause unimaginable destruction and the cross is a brutal and bloody salvation. However, the problem comes when we let this seriousness become Very Serious; too serious to also get the joke. Very Serious Christianity is ultimately destructive to the soul because it cannot take God’s perspective on our weakness: we are foolish, fickle, and frail, but we are also redeemed and being used as agents of redemption.

If we are to reach a point of health in our Christian lives, we must learn to laugh at ourselves, and laugh at all that is like us in the world. We must learn the freedom which comes from seeing our own silliness. We must chuckle like only those saved by grace can chuckle, and roar with the laughter of those saved by faith in the Very Serious work of Someone else.

When we sin, we must grieve it with the tears of repentance. But then, seeing it nailed to the cross, we must smile with the security of knowing we are still loved and still being made into Christ’s likeness.

When we stare the devil in the eye, we must fearfully look to Christ for rescue. But then, recognizing that he has been publicly made an object of ridicule through Christ’s death and resurrection, we must laugh in His face because of the silly creature he is.

We must laugh at a toddler’s shaky steps and a teenager’s silly soapboxes (especially since the teenager takes them Very Seriously), not because we are better than them but because our walk is truly no less steady and our ideas no less small.

We must laugh at ourselves, at all the ways we think we’re strong and all the ways we are truly weak. We must tell jokes about our own people, our own denomination, our own misadventures. We must tell the stories about how silly we were when we were younger, and how silly we were last week as well.

In the end, we must learn to laugh because it reminds us of our humanity. We are not to be taken seriously; we are not to be made much of. It is no accident that we are the children in the story, and just as our Father smiles at us in our messiness and helplessness, so we should smile as well.

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Learning to Dance

When I was an awkward teenager I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out ways to get girls to like me – hardly a surprise, I know. Unfortunately, I was a wannabe-punk rocker and part time Dungeon Master living in rural Nebraska, so my basic lack of appeal to the opposite sex was hardly surprising. Rather than connecting the dots and trading in my Hot Topic spikes and polyhedral dice, however, I ended up acquiring a bunch of “skills” that I was sure would do the trick. I learned to play guitar, memorized poetry, and got good at card tricks. I also, in a particularly ill-conceived move, decided to learn how to dance.

Now by dancing I don’t mean that I figured out how to slow dance at prom. I mean ballroom dancing, big band swing and tango. I started by watching videos on the then-infant internet; when it became apparent this wasn’t working, I took lessons at a ballroom in a nearby town where the classes were made up half by people in their 60s and half by others as socially clueless as me.

While I eventually got decent at dancing, at least enough that in college it was a skill I used to help woo my now-wife, as a gangly 17-year-old I was something of a trainwreck. Being the sort of person for whom “learning” meant “reading a book,” I endeavored to master the right moves. With great focus, I nailed the footwork and how to lead a partner. I thought I had it down. But when the music started, while I executed the moves with technical precision, the magic wasn’t there. Instead of grooving to the beat, I looked a lot like a skinny teen stiffly executing a series of memorized movements. I knew the steps, but I hadn’t begun to learn how to dance.

While stories of my high school ineptitude are good for a laugh, I want to propose that learning to dance is a lot like embracing the Christian faith. Continue reading

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Two Months In

It’s been two months now, living at the hospital. My daughter has spent the first two months of her life in intensive care, surrounding by the beep of heart monitors and the clinical decor of a sterile room. In between the bustle of nurses and pediatricians, I’ve been struck by how much I never realized about living life this way, despite the friends we’ve had confront similar situations.

I never realized how tired I would get, how watching someone you love struggle to grow could chafe at you like a bad pair of shoes, leaving you raw and blistered without your even noticing. I never realized the anger and frustration I would feel, the way even a good report could make you want to yell because it wasn’t the report you wanted – the news that she was coming home.  I never realized how wrong the world could feel, when the question “how are you?” could never honestly be answered with “fine,” when a successful day is one you survive with your faith and hope intact.

I never realized any of this, and yet there’s something familiar about it all. It’s common in these situations for people to say “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” This is in some sense true, of course, and is meant as a gesture of compassion. Yet the fact is that, for all these last few months have felt like repeated kicks in the teeth, they’ve only served as an acute reminder of the dull ache I’ve always had in my jaw. The weariness and frustration and wrongness have all become painfully acute these last two months, but they’ve always been there.

Tragedy isn’t a break from the usual business of life. We’re always up to our necks in a broken world; it’s just that sometimes the brokenness sloshes over our heads, rushing into our noses and making us choke. For fear of confronting the frailty of our peace we distract ourselves with the glitz and hustle of this fractured world. But the waters of life are not to be ignored, and the waves that smack us in the face are reminders of our fallen estate.

The reality of this world as Scripture presents it to us is not a pretty picture. The bible consistently forces us to remove the blinkers and open our eyes. It shows us a world where tyrants triumph, innocents die, good men do terrible things and bad men often escape justice. Creation might be good, men might bear God’s image, but this goodness and this likeness are fractured into pieces by the fall, and we often get cut on the sharp edges.

This picture has little appeal to a people in love with Kincaid paintings and stylized movies, where everything is pastoral beauty and everyone is airbrushed. Yet it is precisely this picture which we need to see. In the gospel, God goes to war with this broken world, not to destroy it but to put it back together again, even though that’s the last thing it desires. It is the great strategy of the prince of this world to keep us from joining this fight, not by defeating us, but by making us fall in love too much with the way things are and keeping us from dreaming of how they will be. The Christian response should start not with a happy lie, but with a broken heart.

I’ll be damned if I ever accept life at the hospital as the way things ought to be. As much as some would like to talk about a “new normal,” as if a few adjustments in perspective could make everything better, I’ll never believe it. Children should not be struggling to breath. They should not have wires tangled around their little bodies. Nothing is okay about it; nothing is quite right here. Yet this isn’t an expression of despair. Instead, it’s to hope for healing, for redemption.

Redemption is what the Bible holds out to us in the midst of a world ravaged by the effects of sin. Redemption from our guilt, from our bondage, from our sin-sick hearts and broken bodies. We aren’t called to be Buddhists; we aren’t meant to deny the dissatisfaction in our souls. This world is a hospital, a place for the sick and dying. Nothing is quite right here. It is only when we realize this truth that we can begin to grasp the hope of a better world, a world of life and health and peace. It is only when we realize we are deeply wounded that we can endure the cure.

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Which Happy?

Marc Chagall, "Abraham Slaying Isaac"

Recently, Elizabeth and I had our first childbirthing class. It was interesting; given my personality, I loved the details about biology and grimaced my way through the doula’s rants about hospitals and glowing endorsements of homeopathy. (Side note: I have no problem believing in demons, resurrection, or a dude walking on water. But homeopathy? I often wish its proponents would drink one part arsenic diluted in one million parts water – only a threat if homeopathy works.) That aside, one thing that stuck out to me in the class was a discussion of the pain that accompanies childbirth. Within the curriculum, what was stressed was that this pain wasn’t like the normal pain our culture teaches us to avoid. Rather, the pain of childbirth was good pain, a pain that was worth it.

There is a true happiness that can only be birthed through hardship – through pain. For whatever reason, this thought keeps forcing its way to the front of my mind. There seems to be two camps in the discussion of Christianity and happiness. One says that God wants you to be happy; while meaning well, these folks often end up promising you sports cars or saying you should probably abandon your less-than-perfect marriage. Hey, God might say that’s wrong, but he couldn’t mean you shouldn’t do what will make you happy. In response, other Christians insist that no, God doesn’t want you to be happy at all. They instead recommend a regimen of discipline and guilt-driven obedience suggests everything short of buying a whip and becoming a flagellant.

I’ve never been able to join either camp. The happy-Jesus crowd have no place for crosses or a faith that gets you fed to lions; the dutiful martyrs miss the earthy joys and heavenly raptures with which the heart of Scripture pulses. The real problem, I think, should be highlighted by the question “which happy?” Continue reading

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Biblical Marriage is Like a Handgun

I couldn’t help looking at this letter on Russel Moore’s blog and then skimming the comments.  For those of you who don’t want to take the time to read it, the letter asks for advice from a Reformed Baptist man and a Pentecostal woman who are considering marriage. Moore says he’ll put up his thoughts later this week, but opened up the letter for commenters.

Now, before I critique the comments, I’ll give my initial thoughts. First, in the big idea realm, I see no reason why such a couple couldn’t marry. If marriage is an image of Christ and His church, then to claim that they couldn’t marry because of denominational differences is a betrayal of disbelief at the thought that Christ can love across such lines. However, this isn’t the sort of thing you should go into blindly. The temptation in such situations is to minimize the real differences the two of you have, and I promise that such a course will sow seeds of conflict whose harvest you will reap later.

That said, what I couldn’t help but notice was the commenters’ obsession with the complimentarian question. Almost all of them called attention to the fact that the wife (who was the Pentecostal) needed to submit to her husband (the Reformed Baptist), and should only marry him if she was comfortable with letting him choose the church. Now, there is an element of truth in this advice, but I want to push back a little.

The reigning error in complimentarian circles (and, should you be readying an assault, I am a complimentarian) is that the paradigm for discussion ends up being about power rather than about service. Scripture clearly teaches that the husband is the head of the wife, but this headship is meant to be one of self-sacrifice – of laying down his life and his desires in order to serve and protect her. He is to lead in service, both to God and to his spouse, exactly the way that Christ led in service to His church (including the beatings, the rejection, the loss of his independent ambitions and a blood-splattered cross.) When we take this fundamental truth out of the equation, we end up championing something other than the biblical teaching on marriage, instead defending what I in the past have referred to as “chauvimentarianism.”

In practice, this means that we might want to couple an admonition to the wife in Moore’s letter with one to the husband. He is responsible, in serving his wife, to promote sound teaching of God’s word, and this needs to factor into church choice. However, he is also responsible for finding a church where she can express and experience God in the ways that He has created her to, even if he as the husband doesn’t much like it. It might be worth telling the husband that he shouldn’t get married if he’s not willing to give up the churches he’s used to attending in order to serve his wife.

I don’t bring this up to be controversial, but rather honest. Complimentarianism is sort of like keeping a handgun under your bed. When used for its intended purpose, it can be a way for the husband to protect his wife and keep her safe. However, we know from statistics that too often its power ends up being wielded in domestic disputes, often with tragic results. I often feel the struggle of knowing that I have a certain measure of authority from God in my family and that this authority could easily be used to serve my own self-interest. But to do so would be (and is; it’s not like disobedience is just a theory for me) inexcusable. If a wife doesn’t submit to her husband, she’s just doing what the church does every day. If a husband uses his authority for something other than loving service to his wife, he is making a mockery of the work of Christ. And Jesus doesn’t take well to bullies who claim His authority for themselves.

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Helping Those Who Help Themselves…?

Ah, that famous mistaken quotation, that much-maligned phrase of my youth. If there was nothing else I learned from Sunday school, it was that “God helps those who help themselves” was assuredly not in the Bible. I have since discovered that its origins lie with Ben Franklin, a fact which gives my sardonic side an impish smile. If the extrabiblical nature of this phrase is news to you, well, spend a few minutes thinking about it before reading this post. Go ponder the fact that we do, in fact, live in an economy of grace where not everyone get’s what we deserve and favor is not simply doled out according to merit.

Alright, you’ve come back? Excellent. Now that you understand that the phrase isn’t Scripture, I want to spend a little time pointing out that it’s also not all wrong. Continue reading

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Theology 101: The Kingdom of God

Note: This is the first of what may become a series of posts on basic Christian doctrine.

I was visiting with my mother today, and as is her wont, she asked me an off-the-cuff theological question: what is the kingdom of God. Those of you who know me realize that I think this is a huge theme in the Bible, especially the gospels, but her question made me realize that I spend far more time talking about its importance and centrality than actually defining what it is. So, without further ado, here’s as simple an explanation as I can give to an enormous (and controversial) topic.

The easiest place to start is with the word kingdom itself. The English here can be misleading, because when we hear the word “kingdom” we immediately think about a place. However, in greek, the word for kingdom is a verbal noun. That is, it is a noun derived from the Greek verb “to rule” or “to reign.” Thus we could accurately translate “the kingdom of God” as “the reign of God.” I realize I just made one of my least-favorite ploys and went for the greek, but this is one of those times I really think it clarifies a lot for us. The kingdom of God is all that over which God rules and reigns. Continue reading

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