October 28, 2020

I’m Not Like You: An Apologia to My Readers (Calvinists especially)

cowboy.jpgMy Calvinistic and Reformed friends. If we are still on speaking terms, I need to say something to you.

I am not like you. That’s not an attitude of condescension, it’s just a fact that I need to bring to the front of our relationship. You are writing me letters and notes about N.T. Wright, my views on inerrancy, my coziness with Catholicism. Your concern is appreciated, but now it’s time to stop it. We need to accept that we are different, and we are not on the same page in this journey.

I’m not like most of you because my dad was divorced, and the legalism in my church destroyed his willingness to fellowship and worship with other Christians. In our church, divorced people were castigated weekly as the worst of sinners. Dad stayed home in shame. He was a man of prayer and the Bible, but he only heard me preach five times in his life because the church we attended had both his ex-wife and my mother as members. I’ll never forget what it felt like when it dawned on me that my father wasn’t enjoying the forgiving welcome of Jesus, but was living in the condemnation of legalism. He loved God, but only at the end of his life did he hear the preaching of the cross that assured him his sins were forgiven- all of them.

This changed me in ways I can’t explain, but I can put it this way. When Jesus said of Lazurus, “Loose him and let him go,” I think he was talking about my dad. Other Christians didn’t hear that word, but I did, and it makes me who I am.

I’m not like you because I believe much of contemporary Christianity has nothing to do with the public ministry of Jesus or the reality of his Kingdom. I don’t see five finely honed points of reformed theology in Jesus’ acceptance of sinners in the Gospels. I don’t see the divisive rejection of people in Jesus’ ministry, but I see it on every corner in evangelicalism. Jesus ministry is the Kingdom of God made actual in the here and now. I see a new Israel being created around Jesus himself. I see the covenant love of God for his people extended to the last, lost, least, little and dead. Jesus’ denunciation of the religious establishment doesn’t seem to register with the religious crowd today who are every bit as outraged as the Prodigal’s older brother when it comes to joining the party being thrown for the son who’d been received home again.

I’m not like you because I learned the value of silence from that darned Catholic, Thomas Merton. I don’t think I can explain this, but I believe you can learn more about God in an hour silence than in a year of reading or listening to preaching. I learned that monasteries aren’t monuments to Mary, but places where another dimension of life is protected and nurtured. I learned in the silence and solitude of monasticism that God is more than a concept, a proposition or a list of statements. He is a reality that breaths life and being into every moment, every cell, every bit of matter than can not exist without him. In the silence, I learned that the voice of God is not the voice of lecturing professors or shouting preachers, but the very voice of being itself. I learned that only my monastic friends seem to understand the great power and universality of this, and because I learned this, I want to be far away from all the things we do to convince ourselves we’ve made God real. It’s not necessary. The God of the Word is found by faith in silence.

I’m different from many of you because God used that monk to show me a life lived before God. Merton wasn’t a theologian, but a writer, poet and activist. He went to the woods. He loved and hated the visible church, but he came back to it every day because from it he learned who he was and in it he found Christ. His lifetime of argument with the church and his superiors has shown me my own heart and attitudes a thousand times, and reminded me that for all its faults, the church is my family, my DNA and my best place in the world. Yet, Merton also taught me that the way of God is on the other side of the mountain, where we go to find ourselves in God and God alone, revealed in Jesus Christ.

I’m not like you because I have chosen to be part of an intentional, full-time, residential, mission-oriented Christian community. I am not bragging when I say this, because God brought me here to save my life as surely as he brought Merton to the monastery to save his. And like Merton, I have made some of my worst mistakes and arrogant errors here, and found the forgiveness of Christ here as well.

I have chosen to bring my life, my family and my ministry to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, to a place where I live in a prefab house, receive a salary that I can’t explain to my father-in-law, and nothing- absolutely nothing- is like any mega-church or typical Christian school. We worship every day. We live together and work together. And we are not all Baptists. Or Calvinists. Or conservatives. We are here to evangelize and teach students who come from every nation and every situation, but who want an education and/or a place to start over. We are a Christian school for non-Christians. We give opportunities to internationals, kids in trouble, expelled students, older students, kids who have been failed by the public schools and well-intentioned home schooling parents. For 106 years, God has sustained us, and I am now a vital part of the vision that birthed and nurtured this unique place.

I don’t know why there aren’t hundreds of schools like ours, but I suspect the poverty aspect of our life doesn’t work for most Americans. Therefore, the people who come to work here are special people. They are Christians who are called to live and work out their faith in situations only Jesus would create. It’s amazing, exciting, difficult and demanding. It’s been a potter’s house for me, and God has used it to work wonders in my life. When I came here, I knew that the experience would shape and change me, and that has been true.

Our school was founded by a Calvinist, and his confidence in God’s sovereignty is part of who we are, but our school is made up of 150 staff and 300 plus students of every background, denomination and commitment….and I cannot afford to define Jesus narrowly. For the sake of my brothers and sisters, I must find him everywhere.

You see, I have to love my brothers and sisters with different theology because we labor side by side in the trenches of ministry together. I can’t spend my lunch hour or my chapel messages debating the finer points of Calvinism. I can’t separate from everyone over anything or everything. We are in battle on this hill, and like fellow soldiers taking ground under fire, we must look out for one another, sacrifice for one another and bind up the wounds we all endure. If you want to know why this theologically minded writer gets so disgusted with theology, then come walk alongside of me for a while. Listen to the stories of broken and dysfunctional homes. See the poverty of these mountains. Come and experience the worst poverty of all: the poverty of the Gospel that goes that is everywhere in the mountains. Go into the modest homes and Christ-adorned lives of my fellow servants; watch, listen and you will see that the ministry of Jesus to our students and neighbors is not the propagation of Calvinism, but a daily living out of the love and mission of Jesus.

I am not like you because I have seen the theological battle for the Southern Baptist Convention up close, and I realize that both sides- all those involved- are capable of being right and wrong. I entered The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1979, the height of the controversy. I was on campus when the conservatives forced a Bible Conference onto the campus, led by evangelist James Robison, to take a stand for inerrancy. I watched the angry reaction of the professors, many of whom were members of my congregation.

Years later, I watched conservatives take over my seminary, and while I agreed with much of their theology, their methods- especially in the treatment of people- left much to be desired. Sometimes, it was unavoidable. Other times, it was simply cruel and stupid. The moderates were driven from the school, and conservatives occupied the chairs of theology. The school’s theological confession was reinstated as a meaningful part of the institution, and I applaud the accomplishment. But the treatment of people- the thing I suspect Jesus would have looked at as a measure of true faith- was shabby.

I was left with a nagging sense that the liberals were never as terrible as I’d been told, and the conservatives were never as wonderful as advertised. Many of my professors in the “liberal” seminary were men and women of great faith, commitment to Christ and concern for his church. Both sides played loose with the truth. Both could be cruel to those in the middle, both were “parties” that thought in herds, and both saw their mission as much in terms of conflict within as missions and evangelism without.

This nagging sense of the flaws, agenda and group-think that pervades theological controversy among conservative Calvinists has not left me. As I grow older, I much prefer the study of Biblical theology to the doctrinal debates that currently rage among conservative evangelicals. I cannot comfortably say that the reformation of the church needs to remake it into the image of what I saw in the conservative resurgence in the SBC. I support much of that reformation, but where is the humility? The generosity of Jesus? The flavor and aroma of grace? I have had enough of war metaphors, because I have seen enough war. No more.

I am not like you because I constantly find Jesus taking me out of the places and labels other Christians find essential, and instead showing me that he is more, greater, deeper, wider than any way I can try to limit him. He was greater than my fundamentalism. He was greater than my Charismatic phase. He was greater than my liberal, seminary student days. He was greater than my years as a youth minister on church staff. Now I am finding he is greater than my years of Calvinism.

There is a visible horizon with Jesus, because there are things I can understand and affirm in the creeds and confessions. But there is no actual horizon. His love, grace and majesty are never ending. My theology is a map, not a photograph. A sail, not an anchor. Faith is a mystery, not a certainty, because I can never be certain that my mind has captured more than a glimpse of his glory. A hope, not a possession, because nothing I possess can hold the one who holds me.

I am not like you because I take no comfort in theological assertions. I feel little affection for most of them. I have a passionate love for the God of the Gospel, the one mediator Jesus Christ, but this love for God surely comes from God, not from me. When I try to think great thoughts about God, and when others propose great theologies, they are impressive, until the reality of Christ refocuses and recalibrates my vision. Then that theology becomes scratching in the dirt.

The defining moments of my life have come in deeper experiences of the reality of God coming to me in Jesus. I read to know that I am not alone in my experience with this God. That the glimpses of glory that have flashed upon my undeserving heart and mind are not fantasies of someone desperate to believe in something good in a meaningless world.

In January of 1984, I was in a class with Dr. Timothy George on “The Theology of Luther.” He was lecturing on Luther’s discovery of justification by faith alone. I was sitting by the window, listening, when I had what I can only describe as a deep, mystical experience, one that continues to resonate within me. In it I saw, and felt, the vast chasm that separates humanity from God, a divide so vast that it is as if there is no God at all. And then I experienced the reality of the mediation of Jesus across this divide. I sensed that all things in God, and all things in that separation, and all things in human life, were encompassed in this one being of Jesus. All was well, all was well, and all will be well.

This was not an “aha” moment of theology, reformed or otherwise. It was a gripping moment of sensing the true nature of the universe and all that exists. It was a moment when scales fell from my eyes. I wrote furiously, and for months afterward, felt the power of that visionary moment. Twenty years later, I tell you that this is the God I know and the God I love. The God who is absent to us, yet ever-present, always embracing us, and our sins, in Jesus. I recognize this God in Luther. In Calvin. In Merton. In Capon. In Wright. In many, many other friends from many other traditions and theologies.

Those of you who wonder why I react to some persons (Osteen) and not others (John Paul II), just go back and read the last few paragraphs. You’ll still judge that I am muddled, and that is acceptable to me. But perhaps you will understand a bit better.

I will continue to call myself a Calvinist, albeit a poor one. I welcome you into my writing and my journey. My readers are very special and important to me. I don’t mind your judgments and your critiques. (Those of you who insist it’s “unloving” to critique Phil Johnson, Joel Osteen or Rick Warren are excused for the rest of the day. Go read this.) All is ask is that you understand that God has placed me in a ministry to those much like the people Jesus ministered to, and my ministry is not a contention for Calvinism. I counsel those whose families are dysfunctional and cruel. I pastor those who have been rejected and abandoned by parents, and those whose parents were taken away by tragedy and selfishness. I pray with the sexually abused. I share Christ’s gospel with students from all over the world and every religion. I open the doors of our Christian community to those whose mistakes have cost them other opportunities. I preach 20 times a month in places and to people other people don’t want to preach to. I live for the Gospel, and I am spending my life, health and years in communicating Christ to students in word and example. To do this, I must live Mere Christianity and the truth of one Body of Christ. I am not all about defending Calvinism and I have no desire to be a promoter of Calvinism. I preach and teach within the theology that I believe, but I do not make Calvinism an issue. I believe it would be unloving and foolish to do so. (I think even Spurgeon regretted the amount of attention he gave to Calvinism- by name- in his early preaching.)

Tonight I listened to a girl talk about a sexual abuse incident that happened to her just over a year ago, an incident disbelieved by her divorcing parents, and an incident that is robbing her of her normality and sanity. I shared with her the Gospel of the suffering Christ, and his power to allow us to endure evil. It is the God of the reformed faith that I am talking about when I tell her that God allows some dark lines to be drawn into a beautiful picture. My prayer is for her to come to utterly trust and value Jesus as Lord. My Calvinism tells me to pray that God will sovereignly create such a faith. I could not counsel hope to such a person without a trust in a great, sovereign, God. I take the treasures and the weapons of the reformed faith into every battle, but only because Christ is my captain and my victory. Calvinism is the way God has brought me to one greater than Calvinism or any other attempt to outline the reality of one who is reality itself.

I am not like you. Every day I wander further from the safety of Calvinism into the wideness of God’s mercy. Warn me. Talk about me, but let me go. I have never been a risk-taker in life, but in this journey I want to ride far away from home. I will return from time to time, but for now I am exploring the Holy Wild.


  1. Michael,
    I like to read what you write.