Author Archives: Tom Fuerst

Tom Fuerst ~ Right Privilege

About a year ago my son started expressing interest in playing baseball. So we went to Dick’s Sports to get him a glove. But my son, only 3 years old at the time, throws left-handed. When we tried to find a glove small enough for his right hand there weren’t any. There were plenty of left-handed gloves for right-hand throwers, but absolutely no right-handed gloves for left-hand throwers. The right-handed throwers are the dominant culture. Being right-handed is the assumption. It is most people’s reality.

But this trip got me thinking at the time about how, when little league starts, my son could be functionally behind the right-handed kids. Not because he’s not smart enough, athletic enough, or big enough, but simply because there were no gloves in his size and for his hand. Simply because the dominant culture is not one he fits into. In this way, he lacks privilege that most kids have.Handedness_Ratio_of_the_World_Population

Privilege is a dangerous word in our culture. We don’t like to acknowledge privilege, and for those of us in the dominant culture, we don’t have to acknowledge privilege because the society is set up for us. We can be blind to these things, not because we’re necessarily immoral, but because we’ve had the privilege of never having to think about them. Again, I never had to think about the dominance of right-handed culture because I’m right-handed, but once I saw how left-handedness can impact athletic performance, I learned that my privileges of right-handedness come with all kinds of assumed, unearned benefits. How much more, then, does the fact that I’m white come with assumed, unearned benefits? How much more, then, does the fact that I’m male come with assumed, unearned benefits?

Of course, it’s at this point that people object – especially white men. We like to see ourselves as self-made. We like to think that we did it all ourselves. And some of this might even be true. Those right-handed little leaguers who get really good at baseball certainly work hard at it. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t benefit from privilege. You can be privileged and still be a hard worker.

The point is, your privilege affords you certain benefits that others can’t assume. To further the handedness metaphor a bit, once I noticed how my son might be delayed about in his baseball skills because of a lack of glove, I began to also notice other ways our world privileges right handers. Standard scissors assume right handedness. Our written language assumes right-handedness – even the way the letters are formed, especially cursive. Even something as simple – and unnoticed – as the dishwasher always being on the right side of the sink displays an assumption (and therefore privileging) of right-handers. Before I had a left-handed son, I never had to think about these things.  I was able to just assume right-handedness is just the way the world is.

And this is maybe the key to any discussion of privilege. Those with privilege just assume this is the way the world is, and therefore they do not have to be aware of how others are not included in their privilege. As a man, I’ve never had to worry about whether people think I have the authority to preach. I’ve never had to worry about people judging my entire sex based on my preaching performance. Rather, because men dominate pulpits, I just get to assume this is just the way the world is. But I’ve never had to think about why a woman’s experience in the pulpit is thoroughly different. I’ve never had to think about the fact that most women in preaching roles struggle with their congregations questioning their authority, giftedness, or competence. I’ve never had to think about how if I preach a bad sermon, no one is going to say, “See, that’s why men shouldn’t be preaching.”

As a white man, I’ve never had to worry about if I did or didn’t get a job because of my skin color. I’ve never had to worry about how a “black name” might appear to an employer on a resume. That’s not a problem white men in this country ever have to deal with. And when I do get a job, nobody ever asks if I got it because I’m white. I have to privilege of everyone just assuming I’m qualified. That’s just the way the world is for me. But it’s not the way the world is for everyone. I’m privileged.

But my blindness to my privilege can also make me blind to the fact that the God I worship is not blind to the way the world is and he sees how some people have an easier go at life than others. Getting a late start in baseball because you can’t get a glove on your hand has minimal significance in life. But getting a late start in education or getting an inferior education simply because of where you were born or the color of your skin matters to God!

The God of scripture has a preference for those who are not privileged. Christ came to proclaim release to the captives, healing for the sick, restoration of sight to the blind, and good news to the poor. His entire mission is a message of restoration and empowerment for those who lacked privilege. This is why Christianity started off as a dominantly poor movement. It’s why so many women were attracted in the beginning. It validated the lives and stories of those who lacked privilege in Roman society.

But this isn’t just something Christ did that was different than how God had previously revealed himself. Rather, God, from the beginning, has been challenging our understandings of the way the world is. In Genesis 4, God went against the way the world is and accepted the younger Abel’s sacrifice over the older (and more privileged) Cain’s sacrifice. Later, God went against the way the world is by choosing Isaac over his older brother, Ishmael. Again, later, God contradicted the way the world is by choosing Jacob over Esau. God later tells the people of Israel that He chose them, not because they were the greatest, most powerful, privileged nation, but precisely because they were not. We could cite numerous examples of this even prior to Christ.

So it begs the question – in what ways does God want to challenge the way the world is today?

One of the key things God may want us to understand is that just because that’s the way the world is for us, doesn’t mean that’s the way the world is for everyone. As a white male, I was raised on the assumption that if you just work hard enough, you can accomplish anything you want. That promise is nice in an ideal world, but it’s a myth – even for me. Nevertheless, it still stays in the back of our minds, such that when we see less privileged people who aren’t succeeding as well as we are, we don’t first think about privilege. Rather, we first thing about hard work, or intelligence, or even virtue. They must not be working hard enough, be smart enough, or be good enough, we think.

But, if I can continue with the handedness metaphor, that’s like saying, “Left-handers have ugly handwriting. If they just worked harder at their handwriting, if they just worked on not smearing the ink on the page, if they just put in some effort, they could have beautiful handwriting like me.” But such an assumption fails to take into account the privilege – the way the page is set up, the way our written language moves from left to right, the way beautiful handwriting is judged by certain slants and curves that are darn near impossible for left-handers to achieve, no matter how hard they work.

Or, if the ugly handwriting metaphor doesn’t work for you, let me actually couch the metaphor in performance. Remember in grade school you had the wrap-around desks? Well those desks were made for right handers – so right handers could rest their arms up on the wrap-around piece to make writing easier. But where did that leave left-handers? If we were doing a timed test, as a right-hander I had an easier time with the actual writing because my arm didn’t get tired. Not so for a left-hander. Not only do they write slower on average because their pen-strokes have to be different, but they also didn’t have an arm rest. My higher performance on a timed test may not be because I as smarter, but was because I had a privilege, the word of the desk was assumed me.

When we consider that privilege is more than just about desks, the problem is exacerbated. An individual underperforming child, then, should prompt questions, not first about a child’s intelligence, but about social structures, educational access, and even simple things like if child eats when not in school. Looking at the larger context should cause us to ask other questions, too – why are all the best schools and best teachers out in the suburbs? Why do Christian schools – schools that name themselves after a poor man named Jesus – have prices so high that poor people can’t access them and get a great education, too? And what is the impact on our city of 50 years of underfunded schools in poor neighborhoods? Do you see? There’s a larger context than individual underperformance. And we must be willing to look at the larger context.

Just as left-handers can’t work harder or just learn to write with their right hands, no amount of hard work is going to remove or displace a glass ceiling. It’s going to take persons in privilege caring enough to notice that ceiling and working with those who are limited by it to remove it. It’s going to take the non-privileged persons to raise their voice, and the privileged persons having the willingness to listen and respond appropriately.

And our faith can play a key role in helping non-privileged persons gain access and resources to flourish as God’s creatures. Christianity is a religion that proclaims a God who laid aside his privilege, power, and even comfort, entered into the human story in the physical form of an oppressed minority in the backwater of nowhere, died a non-privileged death. What might it take for Christians today, especially those of us with privilege, to “take up a cross” and emulate that story?

To return to the left-handedness metaphor, when I was in high school, my best friend Tommy Branch was a left-handed Catholic. In elementary school, he said he went to a Catholic school where they, for religious reasons, tried to make him learn to write right-handed. As a Protestant, I don’t fully understand this, but the point is, his teachers reinforced “right privilege” and tried to justify it on religious grounds. The way the world is was reinforced by baptizing the way the world is instead of celebrating that there are other ways of viewing the world.

I wonder what the white church world, of which I have always been a part, can learn from our brothers and sisters of color. I wonder how we have theologically justified white privilege or male privilege, instead of asking tough questions about the way the world is. I wonder how much we have baptized our assumptions and benefits, talked about them as gifts of God, without considering how God might want us to lay those aside to benefit other voices. Not because I’m anyone’s hero or messiah, but because I care about a world where everyone can flourish, and I understand that I participate in a faith tradition where God’s privileging of the non-privileged is just the way the world is.

Tom Fuerst ~ I Pledge Allegiance to…Jesus Christ, His Only Begotten Son, Our Lord

For the last year, my wife and I have sent our son at least one day a week to a local church’s preschool program, where they work with him on his shapes, colors, letters, and numbers. At times he even comes home having learned important Bible stories. But at his graduation ceremony two nights ago, I realized he’s picked up a few other things, as well.

During the ceremony, the graduating preschools performed several songs, danced down the aisles, received rewards, recited poetry, and at one point they recited The Pledge of Allegiance together.

On some level, reciting The Pledge of Allegiance probably seems as benign to most people as reciting poetry and singing songs. Most of us grew up saying The Pledge of Allegiance each morning in school, a normal, ehem, liturgical aspect of the day. But when my son, together with his classmates, recited The Pledge of Allegiance together at a Christian preschool, something occurred to me. My son doesn’t know the Apostle’s Creed, but he can recite The Pledge of Allegiance without thinking about it.

This wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’d gone to a secular preschool. It didn’t surprise me when my daughter could say The Pledge of Allegiance after her first week of kindergarten in a public school. It also wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we’d sent him to a Baptist or Pentecostal preschool, as they’re largely non-Creedal denominations. But the preschool my son has attended the last year is part of a mainline Protestant tradition where the Apostle’s Creed is a historic and contemporary part of the church’s liturgy.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am also responsible for my son not knowing the Apostle’s Creed. We pray together and sing praise songs together each night, but I have not taught him the Creed.

Still, watching my son recite The Pledge of Allegiance, I couldn’t help but ask several questions. In what world are we living in where a church feels teaching children The Pledge of Allegiance is more important than teaching them the Apostle’s Creed? Is our nationalism so embedded within our church culture that we don’t even think twice about teaching our children it’s their citizen’s duty to pledge allegiance to America instead of spending the little time we have with them teaching them what kingdom beliefs look like? Why would a church institution think reinforcing nationalism is of higher value than teaching the basic historical beliefs of the church?

By teaching my child to pledge allegiance to America, by teaching him to physically place his hand over his heart (a symbol of allegiance in the deepest part of our being), we assume that our nation ought to be our highest allegiance, well deserving of our praise, and, indeed, our lives. We reinforce the idea so prevalent in American culture that religion is this privatized preference while nationalism is a public debt we all owe.

And while I love my country and the privileges of living in this country, I don’t think the claim that our nation should have our allegiance is beyond question. I don’t think it’s a simple “given” that we should indoctrinate our children with the values and liturgies of the state when they haven’t first learned the political and social resistance offered in the Apostle’s Creed.

I understand we think teaching our children The Pledge of Allegiance is religiously benign. But I don’t think we’ve thought it through (there’s a reason so many people want to keep “under God” in the thing – they see the entire piece as a religious affirmation, while ignoring that the “God” represented by the phrase is ambiguous and lacks definition). Further, we don’t realize that oaths or affirmation of commitment like the Pledge actually form us, shape our character, and even direct our worship.

But maybe most telling of all is that we don’t realize how counter-cultural, anti-imperial, and politically subversive the Apostle’s Creed is. Maybe worst of all is that people are bored with the Apostle’s Creed, while they’re willing to pay millions of dollars to protect the amorphous “under God” in the Pledge. But let me take just a moment to show you how the Apostle’s Creed challenges all human political machinery.

When we say the Apostle’s Creed, we announce to the world that we believe the Almighty Maker of Heaven and Earth, His Son Jesus Christ (a crucified Lord), and the indwelling Holy Spirit who resurrects the dead, is the only One to whom the church owes its ultimate allegiance.

By claiming that the Father created the world, we announce that our nation, our existence, and our freedoms are not ultimately created or sustained human will.

By claiming that Jesus Christ is Lord, we state definitively that he rules us, and therefore no nation, governmental structure, or ruler can demand our allegiance.

By stating that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, we announce to the world that governmental power and allegiance are always a threat to the Christian faith, and the closer we are tied to that governmental power, the less we are tied to Christ.

By claiming that Jesus resurrected from the dead, we announce to the world that neither death – nor those who wield death – can hold us or demand anything from us, be it our allegiance or our lives.

By claiming that Christ ascended into heaven where he sits at the Father’s right hand, we announce that he, and he alone, is the rightful ruler of the world, and therefore any temporal nation-state, like ours, claiming we owe it allegiance asks something from us which it has no right to ask, and asks from us something we have no right to give to anyone other than Christ.

By claiming that the church is “one,” we announce that the church throughout time and space (that is, geographic location…i.e. nations) is united, not by some abstracted idea of freedom, but by the Holy Spirit who liberates us from the claims of human structures and governments.

We announce in the Creed each week that the church’s primary human allegiances are not with fellow citizens of America, but with brothers and sisters of faith across geo-political boundaries.

By saying we believe in the forgiveness of sins, we do not just state a belief that God has forgiven us, but that God has empowered us to forgive others, including those who live on the other side of the trenches.

In our affirmation of the communion of saints, we assert that we have Holy Spirit empowered connections across cultures, races, political agendas, and national boundaries.

And by stating our belief in eternal life, we maintain that God’s politics and people will out-survive the temporal nation in which we live.

The Apostle’s Creed is nothing short of politically subversive. It challenges The Pledge of Allegiance. And its Triune structure and Christ-centeredness surpasses the oblong blur of a deity represented by the phrase “one nation under God.”

Saying The Pledge of Allegiance is not a Christian virtue or requirement. In fact, I think a case could be made that Christians shouldn’t say it at all (but I’ll not place that rule on everyone). Nevertheless, there’s something amiss in the assumption that it’s more important for a church school to teach my son The Pledge of Allegiance than to teach him the counter-liturgy of the Apostle’s Creed.

I’m not angry as I write these things. But I’m not surprised either. And that’s probably what bothers me most. How are we not surprised when the church feels it’s our job to reinforce nationalist identity? Why do we just automatically assume the two go together? Do we not realize how repugnant this idea would have seemed to Jesus and his earliest followers?

Certainly, some will disagree with me in this post. I’m genuinely okay with that. But I’m not comfortable with an assumed allegiance to a human institution. I’m not okay with the church treating the nation almost like a divine entity. I’m not okay with my kid ingesting nationalist identity without him first having the tools to resist it, challenge it, subvert it, and offer alternatives to it. Clearly, I’ve got some work to do.

Tom Fuerst ~ Pastors, Moral Failings, and the Thing Nobody Wants to Talk About

When a pastor has a moral failing, especially of the sexual nature, everyone wants to talk through the sordid details. That thing that happens behind closed doors, that thing that is supposedly “no one else’s business” when it comes to my sexuality, becomes everyone’s business when it comes to the pastor. People want to know who the other party was. They want to know what led to the moral failing. They want to know (blame?) if the pastor’s wife didn’t “keep herself up” for him. They want to know how long the affair’s been going on. And they want to highlight all the possible ways the pastor might be a hypocrite for espousing a stern sexual ethic in public while living in blatant sin in private.

Everyone wants to talk about these things. Everyone wants to know.

But there’s an issue behind all of this that no one is addressing. There are questions to be asked that no one really wants to ask because such questions don’t make for good water-cooler gossip.

You see, lost in all the pastor-gone-wild media porn out there is the fact that pastors have jobs that, as largely defined in the American setting, are not sustainable for healthy living. The way the pastorate is defined in American culture, whether the church is large or small, reflects the larger systemic issue of an over-worked American society that knows nothing of a work/life balance. And this is not only the minister’s fault for living into this kind of lifestyle (though it is certainly our faults, too), but it’s also the church’s fault for expecting their pastors to live this way, or rather, for not expecting their pastors to model a better way of living.

The contemporary American pastorate in larger churches looks more like a CEO. His/her job is to make sure the investors are happy, engaged, and committed. S/he must provide a weekly presentation that emphasizes the entertainment factor to maintain the interest of the people. The pastor spends his time visioning, executing, managing, and promoting himself/herself and the church. The church becomes a commodity in this model, another thing people might consume or not consume, depending on whether or not they like the product and the person – the pastor – who advertises the product.

But it’s not much different in smaller congregations. In smaller churches, the pastor is always on the run doing all the hospital visits, administrative tasks, cleaning the church building, writing his sermons (often on Saturday nights), putting out congregational fires, and making sure the few parishioners are happy.

What strikes me here is that, when it comes to the moral failings of pastors, we want to talk as if this is an individual issue. As good Americans, we cannot look beyond the specific free will decisions of the isolated individual pastor. But whether we’re talking about large churches or small churches, when pastors are working 60+ hours on a consistent basis, we are setting him/her up for moral failure.

And yet, despite the plethora and increasing number of major pastoral moral failures in the last three decades, the American church continues to insist that this particular structure of pastoral ministry is not only the way it should be, but many argue, in fact, that it is biblical.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. When the ministry of the church became too great for the apostles, the church didn’t come to them and offer them more money in exchange for more time spent at the church building. No, the apostles and the church worked together to find a way to ensure that the Apostles could focus on very specific things and let others concern themselves with what was left.

This is exactly what we see in Acts 6, when the ministry to the needy became too great for the apostles to take care of. Due to the size and demands of this early ministry,certain people (widows) were being neglected because the apostles couldn’t handle it all (6:1). When the job ministry is too big, matters of justice, things of importance to humans and God, get neglected. And the early church found a solution:

 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community…

The apostles don’t see themselves as CEOs or slaves to the church. They see themselves as fulfilling a specific duty for the church: the ministry of the word of God and prayer. Everything else was dropped from their plate. And not only did the church not look down on them or call them lazy for a desire to emphasize these two tasks alone, but this suggestion “pleased the whole community.”

I’m not arguing here that a pastor’s moral failings are somehow excusable. They’re not. These men and women make terrible decisions that have long term impacts on their families and their churches. But make no mistake about it: these decisions are not made in a vacuum. These decisions are made in the context of a church structure that fails to emphasize what the apostles in Acts 6 emphasized. Pastors are encouraged to be leaders and counselors, friends with everyone and visioneers for the city, but I wonder how often pastors are simply encouraged to be ministers of the word and prayer.

I wonder when the last time a church simply wrote on their senior pastor job description, “we’re looking for a man or woman who simply focuses on the word of God and prayer.”

In the end, this Americanized, degenerate pastorate has already failed. The only reason we can’t see it is because our American individualism blinds us to how structures of oppression work. And, yes, I use the term oppression on purpose. A consistent 50-70 hour work week is not liberty, but enslavement – a return to Egypt. A consistent neglect of family in order to meet the needs of everyone else’s family is not freedom, but bondage.

The American pastorate is bondage.

We want our pastors to be the moral reflections of a godly humanity. We demand that they live in glass houses and sit on pedestals. But we’ve structured their lives in a way that inevitably leads to failure. This is a no-win situation for anyone. I just wonder how many lives will be ruined before we seek a better way. How long will it be before the church demands a better, more biblical way? I don’t know. But I’m not holding my breath for this trend of pastoral moral failings to stop so long as we continue to view the ministry through the lens of the American way instead of the way of the apostles.

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Tom Fuerst ~ Why You Should Stop Obsessing Over the End of the World

I want to write this post for everyone, no matter your particular view of the end times (what scholars call eschatology). I have voiced my thoughts on the end of the world to some degree in other places. I’ve criticized what I deem to be “escapist” end-times beliefs. I’ve lamented the ways in which sketchy end-times theology hurts Christian political and cultural credibility. But here I want to speak to those who agree and disagree with me about the end. Even so, my friends who take a more Left Behind or “rapture” approach to the end of the world may find my comments most challenging because their movement is publishing most of the material shaping popular conception of Christian eschatology. But here is my fundamental plea to all of us:

Stop obsessing over the end of the world. Enjoy creation now as a gift of God.

Too often Christian reflection on the end times gets reduced to a potluck scripture showdown wherein we use our pet verses in an attempt to read the tea-leaves, or the stars, or the blood moons, or the activities of Israel in order to determine some kind of reasonable expectation for when the end is going to come about. Our minds become so fascinated and fixed on the idea of getting raptured out of here, and God’s tribulation wrath on those left behind, that we fail to see that this present moment is a gift of God.

Creation, time, space, love, truth, goodness, and beauty are not afterthoughts in God’s plan to save the world. Each plays an intricate role in that plan. Each contributes something the overall whole of the gospel. Each reminds us of God’s good intentions for his world and the inhabitants thereof. And no matter your eschatology, you are called to live in creation, time, space, love, truth, goodness, and beauty at least until God takes you out of this world.

Now, then, understand the two claims I’m making.

  • Creation is, in one way or another, part of God’s plan to save the world.
  • God has left you in creation for the present time.

This means, therefore, that as long as you are a participant in this creation, you are receiving creation as a gift of God. Creation is a gift to those who do not believe – he causes the rain to fall on the fields of the just and the unjust. Creation is a gift for those of us who do believe – it is the stage upon which we enact and embody God’s salvation plan until he sees fit to change things.

Creation is God’s gift to us. And despite its groaning and brokenness, it still bares the marks of its Creator.

Why then do we continue to look for escape?

Through creation, God is inviting us to participate in his rescue mission. We get to be a part of his story of salvation and resurrection. The journey toward that promised salvation matters to God, else he wouldn’t have left us here. The journey is the ambiguity and the tension, the place of love and grace, into which the New Testament documents spoke. Even the reflections of Paul and John the Revelator on the end of the world were not intended to help us read the tea-leaves, but were intended to teach us to be faithful right now, no matter our circumstances.

I understand there are biblical injunctions to look for the second coming of Christ, so, please, no one quote Bible verses at me to disprove what I’m saying. But the point of every one of those passage is to remind the church, whatever its present situation, to live faithfully within that situation. The Bible’s eschatological, end-times teaching never intends to take us out of the present moment and plant our hearts solely within the future or in the next world. The Bible wants ethical, good, beauty-seeking, truth-telling Christians to firmly plant themselves within this world and for this world. Because God is for this world.

Creation, despite its brokenness, despite its festering wounds, despite its mourning, is God’s gift to us. No matter your view of the end of the world, this present moment is where God has called you to live and move and have your being. So let’s stop waiting for the end of the world, let’s stop moving the political chess pieces around to manufacture our particular version of the end, and let’s start receiving creation as a gift. Let’s receive each moment and each person as an opportunity to participate in God’s salvation plan.


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Tom Fuerst ~ I’m Not a Worthless Sinner

Sometimes I hear Christians say the oddest things. And, no, I’m not just talking about odd Christians who predictably say odd things. I’m talking about the normal, seemingly pious things that come out of normal, reasonable, devout Christian mouths. And these things remind me of the great task before me as a pastor.

Every so often I hear well-intended, good Christian people say things like, “We’ll, I’m just a worthless sinner begging for grace.” I hear things like, “the closer I get to Christ, I see how disgusting I am and how great he is.”

I understand these sentiments. I even used phraseology like this for a long time. At one point in my Christian life I wholeheartedly agreed with that old hymn “At the Cross,” which says “Alas! And did my Savior bleed, and did my sov’reign die? Would he devote that sacred head, for such a worm as I?”

But now I can’t stand such…such…worm theology.

Worm Theology is probably a good moniker for such belief. It imprisons humanity in this notion that our sin has made us worthless. It fetters us to the falsity that the evil within us has so completely broken us that we literally have no value.

It sounds pious. It sounds like a good understanding of the holy character of God lies behind it. It sounds like something Christians should say. But is this at all what the scriptures teach? Or is this just a leftover from the shame-laden sermons we heard in our youth?

When I look at the text of scripture, I see a God who saves us, not because we are worthless, but because we are of infinite worth. We were worth the price of God’s only Son. How much more could God give to communicate our value?

The closer we get to Jesus the more we’re supposed to see how much we are loved. The cross is not meant to shame us into feelings of worthlessness; the cross is meant to show us the fact of our worth.

In fact, the cross may even be a call to stop thinking about ourselves altogether. The more enamored we are with Jesus the less we will obsess over our sin or even our righteousness. Yes, of course, I sin. I do bad things. I wreak occasional havoc on my family, friends, church, and society. But my primary identity is not in those things. My primary identity is that I’m a child of God, one for whom Christ died, and someone God is putting back together again little by little.

God didn’t make trash. He doesn’t redeem trash. He doesn’t tell us that we’re trash. He doesn’t want us to think we’re trash. We’re royalty in the family of the King of kings. Stop swimming in the pig dung and realize that your Father has placed a ring on your finger and a royal robe on your back. He welcomed you home as a long-lost loved one. It’s time to ignore the angry dying rants of Christendom preachers who thought they had to devalue humanity in order to lift up God in the world. It’s time to forget the voices of shame imposed by people who deem themselves prophets. It’s time to disregard the death-bringing denouncements of the worm-theologies of your youth. I am a sinner. But I am not a worthless sinner. The cross of Jesus means that God thought we were worth the price of redemption. We are no longer defined by our worst moments, but by his greatest moment.

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Tom Fuerst ~ Onan the Barbarian: Self-Gratification at its Worst

Like most high school boys who actually read their Bibles, the first time I read Genesis 38:8-10, I was thoroughly freaked out.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.

I mean, what in the flippin’ world is happening here? Did God really just slaughter this guy for “spilling his semen on the ground”?

Freaked out.

For several years, through the rest of high school and on into college, every time this text was brought up in conversation it would be from some teenager or young adult male who was concerned that his own self-gratification practices would incur the wrath of God.

What’s interesting is, the threat of this never really changed behavior.

What’s even more interesting, as I learned later with a little Ancient Near Eastern background, is that this passage has nothing to say about male self-gratification…at least in the sense teenage guys are concerned about.

But, that is not to say young men are off the hook just yet because, in fact, the passage may be more threatening to our health than we initially suspected.

The larger context helps us understand what’s going on in the story.

One of Jacob’s sons, Judah, has a son named Er who has a young wife named Tamar. But Er was an incredibly wicked man, and thus, God puts him to death.

The problem for Tamar is, a woman’s place in society (her safety, security, future, insurance, etc.) is all determined by the men in her life. Now that the man in her life, Er, has died, she has no place in the society.

Fortunately for Tamar, the ancient Jews had a custom called Levirate Marriage, wherein the wife of a deceased man – if he died without producing an heir – could be “passed on” to the man’s next oldest brother. It’s not a perfect scenario, but it does (theoretically) provide safety, security, future, and insurance, etc. for Tamar. More specifically, with a new husband, Tamar is given another opportunity to produce a male child – an heir.

Enter Onan the Barbarian.

Onan is Er’s next-in-line. He is supposed to take over his brother’s obligations to Tamar. Again, most importantly, Tamar’s future is bound up in producing a male child – a son.

If Tamar and Onan have a son, not only will justice be served to Tamar (her son will take care of her in her old age and give her a place in society), but it will also do justice to Onan’s deceased brother, Er (because legally, this son will belong to Er, therefore inheriting all of Er’s property).

But herein lies the problem: When Onan spills his seed on the ground, he is gratifying himself, but not in the way teenage boys assume.

Onan has intentionally avoided the possibility of impregnating Tamar. He has, therefore, intentionally made a decision to not give her safety, security, a future, insurance, or justice. And he has also, therefore, made a decision not to provide an heir for his deceased brother.

In both of these, Onan has virtually performed one of the gravest injustices in the ancient world – an injustice his father, Judah, will perpetuate and further once God strikes Onan dead.

Without a son or a husband to take care of her, in the ancient world, Tamar is forced into a life of prostitution. She has no other choice.

Women do not choose prostitution because they grew up wanting to sell their bodies to sleazy men. They’re forced into prostitution by a society that allows/permits/encourages the vulnerable to slip through the cracks.

Onan is a key cog in the machine that ends with Tamar selling her body. Onan could have provided justice and a future for her, but he chose to gratify himself, instead. Because of this, God gives him the death penalty.

So does this text condemn teenage boys for self-gratification?

No and Yes.

No, it does not condemn them in the sense that they usually think it does. Though, that subject is worthy of its own blog post.

Yes, in the sense that it calls young men to understand that they are to be agents of justice and compassion in our broken world.

We may not have Levirate Marriages in our world, but there are other ways in which the vulnerable in our society still fall through the cracks. We need to be aware of the ways in which our own self-gratification, our drive for more things, our obsession with cheap prices, etc. perpetuates societal injustices, and even (yes, still in our world) the abuse and neglect of women.

Tom Fuerst ~ It’s Always Abuse, Not Just When It Involves a Child


After Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal” published an article from an anonymous youth pastor claiming to have an extramarital affair with one of his students the twitter and blogosphere have exploded with responses such as the Twitter hashtag #HowOldWereYou and call to #TakeDownThatPost.

Ed Stetzer also wrote an important article that highlighted the weakness of the anonymous author’s confession  – namely, that it doesn’t go far enough. The anonymous youth pastor doesn’t actually acknowledge that he is not just involved in a run-of-the-mill act of marital infidelity, but he’s actually participating in child abuse.

Stetzer rightly calls the youth pastor to acknowledge that It’s Abuse, Not an Affair:

This was not an “extramarital relationship.” This was abuse and statutory rape. The anonymous youth pastor is serving time in prison and will be a registered sex offender for the rest of his life because he is guilty of being a sexual predator.

Children, including teenagers, don’t commit adultery with adults. There is no “consent.” Our courts have rightly determined that teens are incapable of consenting to sex with an adult.

In full praise of Stetzer’s prophetic voice, especially concerning the fact that we Evangelicals are missing opportunities to acknowledge the full extent of this problem, I want to add a bit to it.

Yes, when clergy rape children, it is abuse of the worst kind, even when those minors are “willing.”

But what we also fail to realize and consistently communicate is that anytime a clergy member has sex with a parishioner who is not their spouse, it is abuse.

The fact is, clergy members hold positions of power in society. We can lament all we want the church’s loss of position and privilege in American society, but the fact remains, the position of pastor is a position of power and privilege.

When a pastor has willful sexual relations with a parishioner, they are never on equal footing, even if the parishioner is “willing.”

We need to stop referring to clergy sexual misconduct as “affairs” or “cheating,” which assumes there is an equality in the relationship. We need to use language, like that with the story of above, that reflects the genuine imbalance of power that exists between the clergy and the parishioner.

The emotional, spiritual, and even societal power granted to a pastor is intertwined and inseparable from all their relations within the church. We cannot, therefore, pretend that infidelity between pastors and their parishioners is anything less than an abuse of that power, and therefore, an abuse of the parishioner.

Thomas Fuerst ~ Jesus’ Family Tree


When I was in 8th grade, my family lived for a bit in some low income apartments. The apartment complex was formed in a square with a decent sized courtyard in the middle. In the courtyard was where all the dramatic action was – this is where kids got in fistfights with each other, where drug deals happened after dark, and where about once a week there would be a screaming match between two random people. Sometimes it would be spouses, sometimes neighbors, sometimes just two drunk people who had nothing better to do.

My family largely avoided these screaming matches. Not because we aren’t dramatic, mostly just because none of us are fighters, so we avoided all physical confrontation.

But one time we were the crazy people in the courtyard yelling-match. I don’t remember the details, but my mom and a guy from across the courtyard started yelling at each other because one of them owed the other money. It didn’t take long for the situation to unravel into a contest to see who could insult the other in the deepest, most cutting way. I’m sure lots of inappropriate language was used, but the thing I remember the most is that the guy from across the courtyard looked at my mom’s four kids, including me, and said, “I bet not a one of your kids even has the same dad!”

Now, up to this point, I’d largely just been a by-stander. I was in 8th grade and this guy was really old…like 35, so there wasn’t much I could do. But once he said that, once he insulted my momma, I was ready to throw down! I got in my best WWE fighting position, stepped in front of my mom and I came back at him with the best insult I had, “We do too have the same dad. You don’t even have the same dad.” And the best thing is, I was so in the zone, I didn’t even realize my insult didn’t make a bit of sense! I just immediately said to myself, “Nailed it!”


There is this universal human experience that, no matter what you’re arguing with someone about, you can always escalate the situation by insulting a person’s mom or dad or family of origin. If you can insult my heritage, if you can question my family tree, then you can cut me in one of the deepest, gravest ways possible, because it calls into question who I am and my worth as a person.


In light of this universal reality, it is fascinating then, that scripture gives us the complete family tree of Jesus in Matthew 1. Because by giving us his family tree, once we know who is who, we know that there is a lot there that can be insulted in that family tree. There’s a lot in there that can be used against him in a courtyard shouting match.

You see, when we read genealogies today, we find them ridiculously boring. For us, this is like going over to someone’s house and having them show you all their family photos! Why in the world would God have a genealogy on the front page of the New Testament? Why in the world would there just be a list of names?

But this wouldn’t have seemed boring to an ancient person. For an ancient person, their genealogy was everything. It gave them a place in the world. It let them know who they were and where they came from. Grandpas would pull their grandkids up on their laps and they’d go through the family genealogy together, and with each name, the kid’s eyes would get brighter and brighter because each name was accompanied by a story, and each story led to the next, to the next, until that kid knew who he was in the world.

But the kid also knew who he wasn’t. See, genealogies were often selective in who they included. Certain behavior could get you left out of a genealogy. So it served as a warning to the kid: Don’t mess up like uncle Bob, you’ll be removed from the family tree.

Imagine a genealogy like it’s the photos on your wall at home. You don’t put everyone in your family on that wall, and you certainly don’t put every photo of yourself on that wall. You don’t want everyone to see you in the worst times in your life. You don’t want them to come into your house and the first thing they see is a picture of you after that night in college you wish everyone would forget about. You don’t want them to see pictures of when you were in the hospital. You filter the photos on your wall.

And so, too, ancient people filtered their genealogies. If your great grandpa fought next to King David against the Philistines, you were probably going to see his name in that genealogy and you were going to know his story.

But if your great grandpa was one of the leaders of an idolatrous revolt in ancient Israel, then his name is probably going to be blotted out of the list. With certain exceptions, embarrassments to the family name were not listed.

And that’s what makes Jesus’ genealogy so fascinating. When we read this list of names, we see cheaters, liars, cowards, and sex offenders. We see a mixed bag of heroes and villains – heroes who became villains – villains who turned their lives over to God and became heroes. But all in all, we see broken people – people and stories you would not want to display on your walls in family photos.

Abraham was the father of our faith, but because he didn’t trust God’s promises, or because he lacked the patience necessary to see things through, he took a sex-slave and tried to bring about the child of promise through her.

Jacob was a momma’s boy who swindled his own brother out of the family business, and straight up lied to his aging, blind dad to get the family money. You think your extended family is jacked up, read the life of Jacob.

King David’s great grandmother was a Moabite, whose race was cursed by Moses, and his great-great-grandmother was a Canaanite prostitute.

By including these awkward people in the family tree of the savior of the world, Matthew is trying to say something to us about the God who is saving the world. Namely, that God enters into the awkward, ambiguous, sketchy parts of human existence and wants to redeem it from the inside.

“God’s plan is not always accomplished through pious people, but through passionate and thoroughly disreputable people…Jesus did not enter the nice clean world of middle-class respectability, but rather he belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars – he belonged to us and came to help us.” (Stanley Hauerwas)

And, in fact, the work of God is helped, rather than hindered, by this awkwardness. Because the awkwardness provides some raw authenticity with which God can work and get intimate with us.

The way we often think of God is that he’s almost like a Department of Family Services agent who visits our house to see if it’s in order. He comes in with his objective checklist, his no-nonsense attitude, and he distantly observes all the happenings of our house so he can fill out his mysterious report on us. But Jesus isn’t like that at all.

Jesus, oddly enough, is more like Michael Bluth from Arrested Development. As the series opens, Michael is keenly aware of the ridiculous, awkward, messed up family he has: A dad in prison for tax evasion, a sister whose marriage is on the rocks, a brother, who’s a failed magician – despised by the rest of the family – especially his highly judgmental mother. And Michael is right there in it with them – literally. He moves into the same house with all of them. He’s got the same heritage; he’s not a stranger to their issues. In fact, the real crux of the show is that Michael, in all of his own brokenness, is the one trying to fix the rest of the family.

But though Jesus enters into our brokenness, he does not participate in it. He knows this family’s problems. He has our genes. He’s inherited the stories of our successes and failures. But beyond Michael Bluth’s capabilities, Jesus can redeem us because, though he enters our brokenness, he is not overcome by it, and he alone can heal it.

But the only way a physician can heal brokenness is by actually acknowledging that it is there. And so, though Jesus is not overcome by our brokenness, he refuses to overlook the fact that we are overcome by our brokenness. He knows those broken branches on the family tree, he knows those photos you want hidden, he knows those things you want to forget. But he will not skip over those low parts. He will not ignore them. He will not pretend they’re not there.

Rather, he calls them to the light. In this genealogy we learn that though Jesus enters into our story, he enters as one who shines light in the darkness. He looks at the messed up people in this genealogy, he looks at the swindlers and the cowards, the violent and the sex offenders, and he says, “They are mine. They’re dysfunctional, but they’re mine. Their hearts are always so fearful, but they’re mine.” And when Satan comes and accuses us for this thing or that, Jesus doesn’t deny it. He says, “You’re right. I know. But they are mine. And that means there’s hope for them.”


We work so hard to hide our brokenness. We think if we don’t dress a certain way, drive a certain car, live in a certain neighborhood, or have certain kinds of pictures on our walls that people will think less of us. But all of that is just a façade to cover up that we’re really insecure and fearful that someone might find out who we really are.

So we make sure we privatize our lives so no one sees the deepest, darkest realities.

All in order to put up pretenses that we’re better than we are, smarter than we are, more successful than we really are – and all because we fail to realize that Jesus refuses to deny us simply because we’re messed up. Instead, this family tree tells us that he specializes in those who are messed up.

Jesus Christ didn’t come into a perfect family in order to save perfect people who didn’t need saving to begin with. He came into a family as messed up as yours and mine, he claims them as his own, and offers a better way of living. But redemption is possible only by you and I acknowledging and confessing our brokenness.

So, if that’s what scripture asks of us – to acknowledge and confess – then I believe it has to begin with me, since I’m the one preaching this message. Let me begin by telling you who I am, where I come from, and what I’m afraid of. And then tell you how I’ve seen King Jesus begin working redemption in those areas…

  • The first thing I want to tell you is that I come from a poor family that never stabilized their roots. If you ask me where I’m from, I’ll probably just tell you, “All over Missouri.” Everywhere I went I was the stinky kid at school wearing clothes older than me. And because I grew up poor, I’ve spent a good part of my adult life trying to cover that up, because I have this perpetual fear that I’m not good enough to be in a church…especially a church where the majority of people dress up nicely and seem to have their acts together.

But King Jesus has worked redemption in this because he’s given me a particular sensitivity to the experience of outsiders coming into a church for the first time, especially the experience of outsiders who don’t dress and act the way church people dress and act. King Jesus has worked redemption in this because he’s given me a patience and an understanding of the cycles of poverty and abuse and addiction that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

  • There are many other things I could say, but one more confession is this: I live in constant fear that if I fail, people will see that I’m just a fraud. That someone might actually see that I’m not the guy I appear to be on the outside, but I’m actually insecure, messed up, fearful, and cynical.

But King Jesus is working with me on these things, too. He’s given me a wife who sees me for who I am and loves me all the more because of it. He’s taught me about family from the older Christians who have befriended and mentored me. He’s given me good friends I can be honest and vulnerable with. And each day he is making me more and more secure in finding my identity in him rather than in my successes or lack thereof.


See, if we can just acknowledge our own brokenness, if we, as the church, can begin to see those places where God is working redemption in us, that is precisely the place that God will call us to look outward and work for redemption in the lives of other people.

Our places of healed brokenness are the exact places where God’s mission must be lived out. We don’t need to go to Tanzania to live on mission, though that’s a good option. What we need is to simply look at where Jesus has helped fix my brokenness, and search out ways to witness to others of that healing. This is far from hiding our brokenness. But Christian living was never about hiding anyway, was it?

If Matthew was able to find God’s redemptive hand at work in this mixed bag of morally ambiguous people, then surely we ought to be able to see God’s hand at work in our own brokenness and the brokenness of our family of origin. And if God’s hand is at work, then there’s always hope that King Jesus can bring about redemption of all of our brokenness. The snapshots of your past don’t have to dominate the landscape of your future in Christ.