self-purification part 1

I haven’t given up on the plan I had for my blog a while back but you wouldn’t know that by my lack of posting. A combination of teaching 6 courses at 3 universities, getting knocked down for a week by a virus, and adding adult Sunday School prep for the church I pastor (Vineyard North) has kept me pretty well occupied. Oh, and I was trying to finish a book by Nov. 1 too but that is getting pushed back now as well. In fact, I wrote this post out by hand weeks ago (most of my first drafts are hand written, I really only think well moving a pen across a page) and it has lived in my laptop bag ever since, growing ever more rumpled. I am typing this up in the very back seat of a Southwest flight back from Los Angeles where I gave a talk at the 2014 Vineyard Justice Network conference. Because I didn’t have quite enough to do already.

I hope that doesn’t come across as griping. I am grateful for the teaching opportunities but I am feeling stretched a bit thin, like not enough butter spread on too much toast (as Bilbo put it). While all that work has to come first, the topics I’ve planned to blog about are important too, so don’t take the slow pace or random timetable as nonchalance. In fact, the seriousness of the topic of this post has been another factor in my lack of posting. I don’t feel ready to write about this, which probably means I never will feel ready. So here goes.

In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King started by addressing the claim that he was an “outside agitator” as I wrote about before (click here to read that post). The next thing King explained was the four-step process they employed:

1. gather the facts

2. negotiate

3. self-purification

4. direct action

The first step is pretty straightforward – find out if oppression is occurring. Are people being dehumanized? Discriminated against? Treated unjustly? Made to suffer? Finding out can be complicated where those in power engage in secrecy, delay tactics, or obfuscation, but it remains a simple endeavor of gathering facts, however much tenacity it takes (and it can take a lot). Dr. King had more to say about the second and fourth steps and I’m going to blog about them later (see caveat above). For this post, I want to pause on the third step – self-purification. Doesn’t it seem odd, out of place with the other three? The others are so apparently practical and nearly self-explanatory, but the third is different, not at all obvious and not easily defined. On the one hand, I can tell you that Dr. King was referring to all the behind-the-scenes prepatory work they were doing getting people ready to absorb the violence of the police without responding in kind. The civil rights leaders conducted workshops, training sessions, and small group discussions. They role played, pre-enacting the verbal assaults and simulating the physical attacks they were going to face. This enabled marchers to steel themselves for the struggle and in some cases realize they could not march and remain nonviolent. It was as practical as any adult education endeavor.

On the other hand, it is hard to describe this as anything other than spiritual formation of the highest order. Through this process, Dr. King and his teams were changing hearts, minds, and hands. Calling it “self-purification” was an intentional acknowledgment of the deeply spiritual nature of the work going on in this step. The least obvious step but the most important. The step that guaranteed that action would occur, that the action would remain nonviolent, and thus that it would succeed (any violent response from them onto the police would have ruined everything). They say championships are won at practice. In the same way, we could say civil rights were won in the self-purification workshops.

Still, I feel like this fails to get at the heart of what self-purification is all about. Calling it ‘spiritual formation’ only trades one phrase that needs explaining for a different one that also needs explaining. I teach on Dr. King’s “Letter” every semester (I work into every class I can, certainly every ethics class) and each time I have felt uncomfortable with the thinness of my explanation of self-purification. This past summer, I attended the Duke Summer Institute for Reconciliation and self-purification came up in a session taught by Dr. Bill Turner (who is one of my mentors and served on my dissertation committee). During the Q&A, I asked him to elaborate on self-purification and did he ever. In the second part to this post, I will reflect on what Dr. Turner told us in that special moment.

 

fear and trembling – and compassion

I exchanged text messages yesterday with a friend of mine who is a gay Christian. He gave me permission to share this here but anonymously since he has not fully come out to his family yet. I’m posting it because his question is really astute and one I had never thought of (maybe because I’ve not had to live in as much fear and trembling as he has). His question relates to these two passages:

Phil. 2.12-13: So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

1 John 4.15-19: Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us.

Friend: Question: If we as Christ followers are to work out our salvation with “Fear and Trembling” but we are told to live in the Perfect Love of the Father through Him giving us Christ, and Perfect Love casts out fear, how do these teachings connect? Am I in error of my understanding of Perfect Love? Or the terms fear and trembling? These are my questions as of late.

Me: You’re not wrong about the two statements. That is what each says. I think the contexts give us different meanings. John is talking about love perfecting us so that we don’t have to be afraid of the day of judgment. We don’t have to be afraid of confessing Jesus, even to a persecuting world (we could add a persecuting church). Paul is talking about how Jesus emptied himself and how that serves as an example to us to remain humble in our faith. In our context, it is those people who have failed to maintain the humility Paul talks about who wind up persecuting other believers and filling them with fear. The trick is to hear John – don’t be afraid to stand up and confess Jesus as Lord of the person you are, and also to hear Paul – maintain a humble posture even while standing up to persecution.

Me: Or to put it more succinctly, we could say that salvation is working the fear and trembling out of us.

Me: Which is true because the persecutors are coming from a place of deep fear. They lash out because they are afraid. Salvation hasn’t worked their fear out yet.

Me: They don’t trust the Holy Spirit to be able to save both them and people who are not like them.

Me: We have to stand up to them while remaining patient and loving toward them. And that is hard.

Friend: I never thought about it like that. Hmm interesting it would seem that I encounter a lot of believers who are afraid and do not trust the Holy Spirit. So the challenge is finding the balance in between the two?

Me: I think of it more of a both/and than a balance between the two. John is encouraging you to receive the great compassion the Lord has for you. Paul is encouraging you to have that same compassion for others.

——

I haven’t done a lot of blogging lately (teaching 6 classes at 3 universities has that effect) but even when I was, you may have noticed I haven’t addressed the LGBT situation very much, even though most American churches are quite preoccupied with it. I have kept my thoughts mostly to myself because my own view is kind of complicated, not fully worked out, and not likely to get a fair hearing in this climate.

But I’m pretty sure I’m right about fear being a driving force behind all this. We fear what we don’t understand and we can’t understand what lies beyond our capacity to experience. “Truth to be understood must be lived; we can only possess what we experience,” as Charlie Peacock sings. Those who have not experienced same gender attraction have a limited ability to understand what it’s like for those who do, which leads to fear and “otherizing” (to use a dumb, academic word) and the sort of persecution I texted my friend about.

So, all I want to say about all this is these two things:

1. I greatly admire the courage of gay Christians who are tying both to receive the great compassion the Lord has for us (which is harder than it might seem) and also to give that same compassion to brothers and sisters in Christ who treat them in the worst ways. I honestly don’t know how you do it. My dear cousin Kimberly Knight keeps engaging with Christians acting like trolls (or trolls masquerading as Christians, it’s hard to tell which sometimes) on her blog (click here to visit). I’ve told her to quit. I pray for the emotional hurts I know she suffers from each person wrongly using Scripture as a weapon to attack her. But she is doing this very thing. She is letting perfect love cast out fear and walking in the fear of the Lord, receiving and giving compassion. I’m not at all sure I could do it.

2. I trust the Holy Spirit to be sufficiently able to grow anyone who calls Jesus ‘Lord’ more and more into the likeness of Christ. How the Spirit does this looks very different for each of us, both in the process and in the result (in this life anyway). There is no doubt we are in a place of deep moral confusion right now, and the deepest confusion attends our place, or actually our non-place, as the determiners of good and evil and the judges of each other. An eagerness to determine good and evil is what got Adam and Eve into trouble. From that time forward, we make idols of ourselves when we seek to usurp the role of the Holy Spirit in directing the conscience of others. Jesus specifically told us not to judge others (Paul went so far as to say he didn’t even judge himself, but waited on the Lord’s judgment) and yet we keep finding ways to ignore his teaching or give excuses for why we need to disobey Jesus on this one thing (judging) to keep others from disobeying Jesus on whatever it is we’re afraid of. We’re not the arbiters of good and evil. We’re not the moral police of the world or even each other. Unless we have been specifically called to pastor another person (they have to consent to this) or have received a prophetic word or a word of knowledge or wisdom for them (be careful claiming these, you have to embrace charismatics gifts to do so and take it very seriously, you know blaspheming the Spirit and all), we have no business trying to take the Holy Spirit’s place in the lives of other followers of Jesus. We can trust the Spirit to lead them and afford them the freedom to follow the Spirit as best they can. If they are wrong, we can trust the Spirit to lead them and afford them the freedom to follow the Spirit as best they can. If after that we still think they’re wrong, we can trust the Spirit to lead them and afford them the freedom to follow the Spirit as best they can. If we think they’ve read Scripture wrong, we can trust the Spirit to lead them and afford them the freedom to follow the Spirit as best they can. If we think they are living in open sin, we can trust the Spirit to lead them and afford them the freedom to follow the Spirit as best they can.

Do you get it? There is no point where we move beyond trusting the Spirit without moving immediately outside the grace of God to something inferior to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m as concerned for holiness as anyone – but holiness is only possible in freedom. All the external pressure in the world can only at most secure compliance, it can never bring about obedience. Obedience cannot be coerced, it can only ever be freely given. Which is why the Spirit operates the way the Spirit operates because the Spirit wants us to grow in obedience, so calling Jesus ‘Lord’ becomes more than lip service (which is how it starts for each of us) but reflects actual allegiance to the teachings and practices of Jesus. We have to give each other the freedom to walk this out because we can only walk this out in freedom.

My prayer for all of us is that we learn to receive the great compassion the Lord has for each of us and find a way to give that same compassion to each other. Those two things are at the very heart of the Gospel and they are quite enough work to be going on with for all of us.