2 Kinds of Christians

I’ve been a pastor for about 10 years now.  In that short (albeit eventful) decade, I’ve decided that for the most part, Christians in our churches can be divided into two basic groups: those who think their faith is central to their lives, and those whose faith actually is central to their lives.  I’ve tended to think of these two groups as the “Almosts” and the “Alreadys,” respectively.

The Almosts—those who think their faith is central to their lives—are generally well meaning. They’re clear that they think of themselves as Christians.  If they date or marry someone, it will probably be important that they find someone who professes the same things they do.  They will put “Christian” as their religious beliefs on Facebook.  There’s even a good chance that they are familiar with church jargon.  But for some reason, they just can’t make the jump into the second group.  There’s something that just hasn’t tipped yet, a switch that hasn’t flipped.  These are the people who are always saying they need to “do a better job” of praying or reading the Bible or what have you.  They want to move further in their faith.  But they don’t.  They continue on, year after year, no different than they were the year before.  True change is almost theirs, but they never quite get there for some reason.  The problems they deal with today will be the same problems next year and in five years.  They’ll continue to show up for church and may even serve or join a small group, but we all sort of know that they probably won’t be changing any time soon.  They are the Almosts.

Then there’s the “Alreadys”—people whose faith actually is central to their lives.  These people are the ones who keep me on my toes as a pastor.  Not because they are always critiquing sermons (those folks often belong in the first group) but because they simply want more.  They are self-motivated, so their insatiable hunger for the things of God has little to do with me.  I just try to toss them alley-oops and watch them throw down dunks.  Often, they’re the ones throwing me alley-oops.  They lead me, even though I’m supposed to be the pastor.  While they don’t always need me to pastor them, when I get to, it’s a joy.  Of course, these people don’t have perfect lives, and stuff happens.  But when it does, it often drives them even deeper into God.

What’s crazy is that the two groups can look identical on paper.  Almosts and Alreadys may both attend church, serve, get into a small group, and maybe even tithe.  But there’s still something that is difficult to describe that seems to make all the difference between them.

So here’s the rub: for some reason, it can be very, very difficult for an Almost to become an Already.  It’s like there is a hard drive that has to be deprogrammed.  In fact, I might go so far as to say that it’s easier for someone who isn’t a Christian to move into the second group than for someone in the first group to move into the second group.  Sadly, it just doesn’t happen very often.

So how did we get here?  How is it that our churches are (arguably) filled with Almosts, who want to be Alreadys, but can’t seem to do it?  We could debate this all day, but I’ll offer three reasons why I think this phenomenon exists.

1. A consumeristic gospel.  I’m not talking about overt health and wealth type stuff here.  I mean the more subtle forms of consumerism in our gospel presentations.  It happens when, As NT Wright says, we turn the good news into good advice.  “Here’s how you can get to heaven, have a fulfilled life, have peace with God,” what have you.  These things may be good and true, but when they are used as the primary reason why someone should become a Christian, it threatens to propagate a “what’s in it for me” sort of faith.  For the earliest Christians, the gospel was not advice or an opportunity, but a fact: God has initiated His rule of the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and everything else (forgiveness of sins, peace with God, etc.) follows from that.  For them, it was not simply about what they might receive, but about the fact that the only sensible thing to do in light of this information is to get in line behind the guy who came back to life!  For a telling example of this, read Paul’s exposition of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15.

2. A small gospel.  By this I mean the notion that becoming a Christian can be boiled down to praying a prayer of forgiveness that does not require complete subordination of one’s life to King Jesus.  If the gospel entails the notion that Jesus is Lord, then we’ve simply made him into a really nice loan officer who forgives our debts.  In no way am I reducing the importance of the forgiveness of sins.  However, we must acknowledge that if the gospel entails more than this, then we have a responsibility to acknowledge it as well.

3. An American gospel.  “Syncretism” is the term that we use to describe ways that people conflate the gospel with the surrounding culture.  Syncretism is difficult to see and evaluate within ourselves; it’s sort of like how a fish doesn’t know it’s wet.  But it contributes to the fact that when we read New Testament commands to love enemies (Matthew 5:44), or do good to persecutors (Romans 12:14), we easily dismiss them.  We’ve been conditioned in another direction—namely, that the rights of the autonomous self are supreme.  With an American gospel, if anyone threatens my rights, or even my preferences, then all bets are off and I’m free to respond with whatever vitriol I deem appropriate.  With an American gospel, we are free to pick and choose what affirms our individualistic sensibilities and what doesn’t.

When someone simmers in these false gospels week after week, year after year, for an entire lifetime, it can become difficult for them to imagine anything else.  When an entire church culture has simmered in it for decades, it can seem downright impossible.  But we cannot grow cynical or lose hope.  After all, the power of our gospel is not based on us.

But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians 1:23–24


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Blood, Work, and Wonder

To be human is to wonder.   Whether it was the primitive people who first squinted up toward the heavens or today’s scientist who opens the roof of the observatory, humans have been enraptured by the question of our own existence.  It is no surprise, then, that great literature does not fail to address those questions which are most germane to the human experience: What is our purpose?  What constitutes humanity?  What is God like?  For what do we live, love, toil, and die?

The book of Genesis is one well-known example of such ancient literature.  The opening chapters have served as a benchmark story of human origins for centuries.  However, the end of the nineteenth century saw a surge of textual discoveries from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt that made it clear that Genesis is not the only example of such ancient literature.  In fact, some of the striking parallels between Genesis and other ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) creation documents are enough to make many Christians squirm a bit as the uniqueness of their sacred text is seemingly dissolved.

However, I don’t think that needs to be the case.  In fact, reading Genesis 1 and 2 in light of other ANE parallels presents a grander vision of God than simply viewing it through our modern mechanistic lenses.  For now, let me give just one example.

Two of the most prominent ANE parallels to Genesis 1 and 2 are the Babylonian epics Atrahasis and Enuma Elish.  Like Genesis, both texts explain how human beings came about.  In Atrahasis, conflict abounds among the gods.  The lower gods are forced to labor for the higher gods, and the workload becomes too great.  So they go on strike.  The lesser gods gather outside the great god Ellil’s door, and they’re so annoying that Ellil eventually comes out and, in order to appease these obnoxious little gods, suggests that the womb-goddess create primeval humans so that they may “bear the load of the gods.”  In other words, humans are made to be slaves.

In Enuma Elish,we find a similar situation, albeit a bit bloodier: the great god Marduk has just slain the goddess Tiamat by clubbing her to death, sliced her body in half like a “fish for frying,” and created the cosmos out of her dead corpse (the next time your college prof accuses the Old Testament of being misogynistic, remind them of this).  Once Tiamat is conquered, Marduk has to decide what to do with all this newfound power, so he decides to get the party started by creating humans to “bear the load of the gods.”  No doubt, that’s sure to win him some points in the polls.  Once again, humans are made to be slaves.

Before we turn to Genesis, notice one thing.  In both texts, humans are created to work.  Specifically, they are created to do the work of the gods as slaves.

When we turn to Genesis, we’ll notice a similar theme: work.  In fact, the language of the three texts are strikingly similar:                                                                                   

    Genesis 1:26:  Let us create mankind…           …so that they may rule

    Atrahasis I:    Let her create primeval man…  …so that he may bear the load

Enuma Elish:  Let me create primeval man…    …so they (gods) shall be at leisure

However, while their wording may be similar, the theology (and anthropology) of Genesis could scarcely be more different from the other two.  First, humans are not made out of the blood of a dead god, nor are they an afterthought.  Rather, they are created in the “image” and “likeness” of God and are given dominion over the earth.  We could go on for days about the meaning behind those words, but suffice it to say that the implication is that humans are not to do the work of slaves, but the work of rulers.  Rather than afterthoughts, they are the crown jewel of creation—placed in God’s cosmic temple to rule as his vice regents.

They are created to do the work of God as kings and queens.

Genesis has nothing of the violence and bloodshed of the Babylonian epics.  Rather, there is simply God—who creates life, beauty, and community—as opposed to the gods of Atrahasis and Enuma Elish, whose insecurities lead to infighting, murder, and oppression.  The God of Genesis stands over creation, in complete sovereign control, and declares it to be “very good,” as opposed to the dominant narrative of the day, which saw the gods as being locked in an epic power struggle, creating for their own selfish ends.  This God goes on to give humanity royal status, as opposed to that of a slave.  Who knew how “progressive” the Old Testament could really be?

The God of Genesis is unrivaled in power, and his image bearers are unmatched in dignity.  It’s a message that seems, at the very least, far beyond that of its neighbors.

Or, we might say, inspired.

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Eyes Wide Open

Mark 8:22–26 has always been a troubling passage for me.  In this story, Jesus heals a blind man—business as usual, right?  Well, except for the fact that he appears to botch his first attempt at healing him:

After spitting on his eyes and laying his hands on the man, he asked him, “Do you see anything?”

The man looked up and said, “I see people.  They look like trees, only they are walking around.”

After this weird moment, Jesus does it all again, but this time the man, with “eyes wide open,” can see everything clearly.  So what gives?  Why did it require a second try?  Was Jesus off his game?

One of the things that I’m learning about the gospels (the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is that they are masterfully crafted pieces of literature.  So many of the things we love about good literature are present in the gospels—including nuance and subtlety.  Recently, scholars have begun to realize what a remarkable piece of literature Mark truly is.  For example, in Mark, two sections that may not appear to have any connection actually work together to make a point that neither of them alone could make.  However, by the way that Mark has situated them in the text, a careful reader may be able to pick up what is going on.  It seems that 8:22–38 is one such example.

Here’s what I mean:

Immediately after Jesus heals this blind man, he is walking toward some villages with his disciples.  On the way, he asks them what people are saying about him on the street.  The disciples tell him that some think he’s John the Baptist, others say Elijah, others one of the prophets.  Then Jesus brings it home and asks, “And what about you?  Who do you say that I am?,” to which Peter gives the correct answer: “You are the Christ.”  Peter, being the first person to profess Jesus’ true nature, is probably bursting with that mic-drop feeling.  However, it doesn’t last long.

Jesus goes on to give his disciples a bit more clarity about what being “the Christ” means.  It means that he will die.  They will kill him.  Then he will rise again three days later.  And the text says, “he said this plainly,” as though to assure us that Jesus wasn’t in one of his mysterious parable-telling moods.  He was making his point obvious.

Peter hears Jesus say that he is going to die, and he actually takes hold of Jesus and scolds him.  Can you imagine?  The disciple–teacher relationship is turned around for a brief moment.  Peter, thinking he knows better than Jesus, steps into Jesus’ role, and actually tries to correct him.

You see, Peter may know that Jesus is the Christ, but he still does not see clearly.  The way of Christ is far from anything Peter may have imagined.  All he sees right now are people who look like trees walking around.

So Jesus tries it again.  He calls them together and lays it down for them:

“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.  All who want to save their lives will lose them.  But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.”

This, for Jesus, is to see clearly.  This is the upside-down nature of following Jesus.  It is unlike anything else in history, and completely counter-intuitive on many levels.  It is giving yourself away, completely surrendering, and suffering for the sake of others.

I think Mark is telling us that we are all the blind man.  And when we start to think we understand the Way of Jesus according to our own presuppositions, then we still do not see clearly.  There is a two stage process that must happen.  Stage one is where we see for the first time, and it’s wonderful; but we don’t realize how dim our vision really is.  We come to Jesus with our ideas of what he should do for us.  Perhaps this stage is necessary, I don’t know.  What I do know is that it isn’t the end of the journey.  Jesus must then take us into a moment of disillusionment, where we realize that what we thought we saw wasn’t actually the way things were.  It is, in fact, sort of the opposite.

We must become like a baby once again, with eyes wide open, taking it in as for the first time.  Only then can we see they Way of Jesus as we are supposed to.

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Adoption update

It’s been over 2 years since I last wrote an adoption update (or written a blog, for that matter), so I thought it was probably about time.  Sadly, today I don’t have a much better idea of when this adoption will be completed than I did two years ago.  The exit letter suspension in the DRC lingers on, far past anyone’s expectations.  So, we continue to wait and pray.

To catch anyone up who doesn’t know, Natalie and I have become the legal guardians of a child in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I won’t reveal any more details about our child online, but we’d be happy to share with anyone who wants to know in person.  We are, according to Congolese law, this child’s parents; the birth certificate even has our last name on it!  However, due to the continued legal entanglements in the DRC, we cannot bring our child home.  This is the situation that hundreds of families around the world have found themselves in.  It’s a mess of the highest order.

For more than 2 years now, officials from the US State department and Embassy Kinshasa have been working hard to find a solution to this problem.  Recently, the DRC officials who were reviewing all adoption cases declared that they had finished their work.  However, as it turned out, they had only actually reviewed 99 of the 1500 or so cases, and of those 99 cases, only 72 children were allowed to leave the country (I think 14 of them were from the U.S.A.).  As for the 1400 others, it has not been made clear how, when, or if those cases will be reviewed.  The latest word we’ve received is that the DRC officials do not intend to do any more work until new adoption legislation has passed in the DRC parliament, which apparently may not happen until next year.

There are a host of adjectives I could use to describe how we feel about this situation, but I think the one that sums it up best for me right now is disheartened.  What do you do when you have a child stuck in another country, with no idea when or how the situation will be resolved?  In the last week I’ve been on the phone with Senator Thune’s office, simply to ask what we could be doing.  We can’t just do nothing.  But the situation really is out of our hands.

So many of you have joined us in prayer over these (almost) three years since we started this journey.  Thank you, and please continue to pray!  If you really want to get involved, then get ahold of your represenatatives in DC and ask them to make DRC adoptions a priority.  That would be swell.

This has, of course, given me much to reflect on as a pastor and a follower of Christ.  The thing I seem to sense God teaching me the most in all this is what I shared in church this morning as I led worship: The way of Christ isn’t simply there to alleviate our suffering; rather, it leads us to a place where we can learn to suffer well.  These trials are comparatively small, but I hope we can endure them in a manner worthy of our Lord.  Thanks to all who have been enduring alongside us.

Much love,



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Adoption update


It’s been far too long since we’ve said anything (at least online) about the progress of our adoption.  We have much to be thankful for.  Let me briefly update you so you can continue to rejoice with us and pray with us:

1.  Fundraising went incredibly well.  We are thrilled to announce that we met and surpassed our fundraising goal for this adoption.  Truthfully, this was one of the things I was the most worried about but it was probably the easiest part of this whole process!  This is a testimony to all the wonderful friends we have and God’s faithfulness.  We’ve been blown away by all who have shown their support – friends, family, acquaintances, people we haven’t spoken to since high school…it’s been amazing.  We are so blessed.

2.  We sent off our giant packet of information called a dossier.  This is basically our application to the country.  This means that we are basically done with paperwork and are just waiting for a referral.  We don’t yet know the child we will adopt, but we hope that in the next few months we’ll get a referral, and then we’ll hopefully travel a few months after that.  So it’s completely out of our hands!

3.  Please pray for the country we’re adopting from (I’m not allowed to say online) because they are currently putting exit letters on pause while they do some investigating.  This means that no orphans are being allowed out of the country.  We are told it could last up to a year, but there’s already been positive progress and we’re hopeful things will get straightened out very soon.  Even though it’s frustrating, we believe that hiccups like this cause governments and officials to refine the process, making it better for everyone involved, especially the children without families!  So please be in prayer.

Thanks so much for all the support so many of you have given.  We are truly thankful, and can’t wait for the day that we get to hold our little African girl in our arms.  It will be several months yet, but we’re trusting God to make our paths straight.

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Learn to do good.  Seek justice.  Help the oppressed.  Defend the cause of orphans.  Fight for the rights of widows.  Isaiah 1:17

Dear friends and family,

We have some exciting news: we are going to welcome our second child into our home!  But the child won’t look very much like us.  In fact, they’ll be African.  That’s right, we’re adopting! 

The adoption agency we’re working with has understandably requested that we don’t share very many specifics online (specific country, gender, and age) but we can say that our child will come from a place in Africa where orphans face some of the worst imaginable circumstances.  Feel free to call us or talk to us and we’ll share any other specifics you may want to know.  We’re still in the beginning stages – we don’t yet know what child we’ll be adopting.  But we’re in the thick of the process, feverishly completing paperwork, getting referrals, getting stuff notarized, completing medical exams, and moving forward with our home study.

Some of you may be wondering why we are doing this.  We’ve had people ask us, “Don’t you want to have more biological children first?”  “Isn’t that something you should do a little later in life?”  These are great questions.  However, for a variety of reasons, we feel urgency about this.  Natalie and I strongly believe that we are supposed to take our countless resources – financial, relational, emotional, and more – and leverage them for the sake of an orphan in this world.  I (Phil) have gone to Africa several times in the past few years.  As crucial as our work in Zambia has been, I don’t want to just go see orphans anymore.  It’s time to make one less orphan in the world. 

James 1:27 says that “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.”  Things haven’t changed much.  Orphans (and widows) still face dire situations.  The way we have chosen to live out this verse is by giving a future to an orphan who doesn’t currently have one, and we’re inviting you to join us.

The country we’re adopting from is one of the worst environments imaginable for its five million orphans.  It has been home to one of the bloodiest wars on the planet.  The violence still continues in some places in the country where children are often kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers or sold into slavery.  Millions die of HIV/AIDS, malaria, starvation, and a host of other causes.  As you can imagine, the future for any orphan there is bleak at best.

So we’re asking if you’ll help us bring an orphan home.  Adoption, as opposed to biological birth, gives a tremendous opportunity for everyone to be a part of the miracle.  Every time you see this child, you will know that you were a part of the process that gave him or her a family – you were the miracle.  We hope you don’t miss the chance!

Here’s how you can be involved:

1.  Pray!  International adoption is risky.  There are a number of things that could go wrong.  We’re trusting God to make our paths straight. But we need you to pray for our future child and us and everyone involved in this process.

2.  Donate!  This adoption will likely cost $40,000.  Yes, you read that right.  Forty thousand George Washingtons.  Our goal is to raise at least $25,000.  Keep in mind: this isn’t a program or a charity we’re asking you to support.  It’s a child – a child you will likely meet someday.  And if you give, you’ll have had a significant part in bringing her home.

Donating is easy AND tax deductible!  We have a profile set up at adopttogether.org/wiseman.  Simply go there to donate via credit card or paypal.  Or, you can mail a check with our name on the envelope and memo line to AdoptTogether, 251 W. Central Ave #278, Springboro, OH 45066.  You can also go online to our profile to track our fundraising progress with us.

Because time is of the essence, we’d love for all donations to have been made by May 1st.  Our hope is to have our baby home about a year after the mailing of this letter.  It will be a long, difficult journey, and we covet your support in any and all ways.

There are 143 million orphans in this world.  Together, we can make it 143 million minus one.


Phil, Natalie, and Bella Wiseman

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Collect for Ash Wednesday

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer

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