Saturday, November 19, 2011

Longing for a New Movement

I’m dreaming of a different movement – different from the Occupy movement, that blames institutions, corporations and government and ignores the way individuals and consumers played a role in shaping the way our country is today; and different from the Tea Party movement, that says, “I work hard, plan wisely, and balance my budget. If everyone else, including the government, took responsibility and planned ahead like I do, everything would be fine.”

This movement would not blame the wealthy 1% for our problems, assuming that because they have more, they have taken it from others. Nor would it blame the poor, disabled and elderly who receive government benefits and pay little – if any – taxes into the system. It would neither deny that institutions exhibit irresponsibility, greed and depravity on a large scale, nor deny that individuals cause problems for themselves through irresponsibility, greed, and depravity on a small scale.

This movement would not deny that location, upbringing, and the situation one is born into significantly affect their economic well-being throughout life. Nor will it deny that it takes a lot of careful, diligent and strategic effort and planning on someone’s part to take advantage of those opportunities and acquire or maintain privilege, wealth or security.

The movement I dream of would consist of people who believe that they have a serious responsibility to steward their resources, work diligently and strategically, and plan for the future. Its members would have a fierce conviction that they ought to speak prophetically and courageously against the depravity and irresponsibility of the institutions of society, with a constant awareness of the potential for the disadvantaged to be exploited.

This movement would embody a deep compassion and desire for justice and mercy to be administered wisely. The people who make up this movement would have a deep conviction that they must work hard, live responsibly, plan wisely and take full advantage of the opportunities given them so that they can leverage all their resources with overwhelming generosity for the advantage of others. They would have a deep-seated desire to open the door to the opportunities they enjoy to others.

The members of this movement would long to see individual empowerment and a sense of responsibility go viral. And the responsibility would not be that of each person for himself and his own, but the responsibility of each person to exercise his or her gifts and abilities for the good of all those around them. This movement would have a vision that sees beyond redistribution of wealth to redistribution of wisdom and opportunity; a vision that sees beyond hand-outs and allotments to empowerment, investment and lives of constant teaching and mentorship.

Instead of saying “You should have done what I did” or “The people in charge need to do something about this,” this movement would say “Because Christ is in charge, I ought to do something.” The tragedy is not that the government does too little or too much; the problem is not that people are too foolish and lazy and wasteful. The tragedy is that the people of God do too little of living, teaching and modeling justice, generosity and true worship, and do too much of living shortsightedly and selfishly.

Anyone up for starting a movement?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Open Letter to the Homosexual Community

Dear Friend,

I want to start by apologizing for the tone that too often dominates the comments of Christians regarding homosexuality. For anyone to feel that he or she is more deserving of God’s grace and approval because that person is heterosexual, not homosexual, is a wrong attitude. It is wrong because acts of greed, lying, gossip, arrogance, heterosexual adultery and premarital sex, and many other acts that people (including Christians) commit are horrible. They are expressions of our brokenness and need for forgiveness. A follower of Jesus should recognize that the essence of the message of the Christian faith is that we are all able to receive grace and forgiveness even though we are all guilty and broken.

I think we are all broken and incomplete, and every person is searching for the thing that will bring the wholeness and satisfaction their heart craves. This longing is what leads us down many different paths: we are pursuing things that seem as though they will fill that emptiness, and make us feel like we are accepted, significant, and complete. People pursue wealth, luxury, fun, relationships, accomplishments, sex, and other things to find that satisfaction. At the moment when you were filled with a desire for a romantic and/or sexual relationship with someone of the same sex, you were seeking something to satisfy that longing for wholeness. It’s understandable that you would cling fiercely to something that provided some relief, if only partial or temporary, to the brokenness of the human condition that leaves us with such emptiness.

But, dear friend, I am guessing that you also feel moments of shame. Even if you proudly march for your rights, enthusiastically claim that you have found true happiness, and defiantly stare down those who would criticize your lifestyle, in a transparent moment, you would admit that shame and guilt cloud your thinking at times. And worst of all, the emptiness inside remains.

In the midst of this struggle, extra confusion is present because your culture is feeding you a lie. You are told to accept that your identity - the essence of who you are - is in your sexual behavior. But your identity is not in your activity; it is grounded in something much deeper. You are a human - made in the image of God - and he longs to fill that emptiness in a way that no other relationship and no behavior ever could.

I don’t know whose business it is to say whether or not gays have the right to marry in a secular nation. I know that we could argue about whether homosexuality is a result of a choice or a genome until were so sick of arguing we want to punch ourselves in the face. I can refer to the scripture, an you can refer to recent studies, and we’ll probably both end up sticking with our assumptions. But I’m pretty confident that, if the good news of God’s filling and all-satisfying love takes root in your heart, I won’t have to argue you into any change. The Holy Spirit would fill you with a desire to please the Lord, and guide you through the appropriate changes, however difficult they may be.

Until then, please be willing to keep listening. And please forgive us when our attitudes are too smug and self-righteous, when we show our ignorance of who you really are and what you really think, and when we fail to answer the important questions because we are too preoccupied with trying to prove ourselves right.


A Caring Christian

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Semi-Patriotic Prayer

This should have been posted on July 4th. The thoughts were formulating as early as Memorial Day. On every national holiday, I hear prayers of Thanksgiving for our freedom and the bleesings we have. It is not often that I hear repentance over the wrongs we have committed. I believe that God has blessed and used our country in some special ways. I also believe that he has done it in spite of our wrongs, not because of our righteousness. Here’s my attempt at providing balance in a proposed prayer for a church service on a national holiday.

Dear Sovereign God, who rules over all nations, as citizens of the United States today,

We thank you, Father, for how you have allowed our nation to forge the way in freedom of worship, being a leader in breaking the previously long-standing pattern in Western culture of wars between rival Christian movements.

Forgive us, Lord, for the many years of history where black Americans were restricted and excluded from worshipping freely alongside others.

Forgive us, Lord, for how we have fearfully questioned, attacked and persecuted others because their differing beliefs scared us.

We thank you, Father, for the tremendous economic prosperity that has blessed our land for so long.

Forgive us, Lord, for how we have used so much of that wealth to feed our greed and consumerism and at many times remained ambivalent toward the needs of the world around us.

Forgive us, Lord, for claiming that you had given us a “manifest destiny” to acquire land which became ours by military might and aggression, and built wealth and resources by shedding the blood of Native Americans and those of other nations.

Thank you, Father, for the many Americans who have been generous and servant-minded leaders in fighting poverty and serving in global missions, using wisely the wealth you gave them.

Forgive us, Lord, for how we have toppled leaders and manipulated the fate of entire nations for the sake of protecting our economic and political interests.

Thank you, Father, for how America has become a place where people of all races have many opportunities before them.

Forgive us, Lord, for pushing Native Americans onto reservations and setting them on a course toward generational poverty.

Forgive us, Lord, for the many years where we as a nation pushed black Americans to the margins of society, scorned them, and deprived them of opportunities through unjust oppression.

Thank you, Lord, that we have a voice in government affairs and freedom to express our views and ideas.

Forgive us, Lord, for condoning the murder of millions who never got to use their voices, because their lives were taken before they were born.

Forgive us, Lord, for how the founding of our nation included an act of vandalism aboard a British ship and a rebellion against the governing authorities (which the Bible tells us you established) because of our citizen’s outrage over paying taxes (which the Bible tells us to pay).

Thank you, Father, that your blessings are so much greater than we deserve.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Great Disappointment: 1844 and 2011

Here I sit at my computer, the day before May 21, 2011. May 21, for most people, will just be a normal Saturday. For a number of others, not all of whom are strangers to me, there is a much greater expectation for tomorrow. As the followers of Harold Camping have boldly and publicly been communicating, they expect judgment day to come on May 21

This prediction has received much ridicule from the secular media, and received gentle (and not-so-gentle) critiques from Christian leaders – some making a joke of it, others humbly explaining that there’s no biblical reason to believe this.

But it shouldn’t really be a surprise that Camping is teaching this, or that people are staking their plans, money and faith on his teachings. It’s happened plenty of times before. The most prominent example in U.S. Christianity was William Miller, who claimed to have discovered the date of Christ’s return in the 1820’s. Miller was a self-educated farmer from New York – he had not been influenced by academia or being a prominent part of an institutional church leadership structure. He was an average American, reading the Bible for himself, and coming to a conclusion that seemed very clear to him: Christ would return in 1843. In the 1830’s, he began to share this message with others, and by the early 1840’s gained a large audience for his message throughout the U.S. Roughly a million people attended camp meetings to hear him speak, and the movement caught the attention of the nation. His book, Evidence from Scripture of the Second Coming of Christ, About the Year 1843, was published in 1836. Thousands believed his “biblical” insight that Jesus would return “sometime between March 21st, 1843 and March 21st ,1844,” (based on the Jewish calendar) l . They forsook their previous religious beliefs (i.e., left their churches) to follow Miller’s teachings, and the popular call that grew to “Come out of Babylon!” (Babylon, in their scheme, being the Protestant church.) Working class people eagerly anticipated the end of their struggle to earn a living. Many sold their possessions. Millerites dressed in white robes and went up on hills to await Christ’s arrival at any moment.

The spring of 1844 brought the first disappointment. The predicted time frame had passed, and the “virgins awaiting the bridegroom” were still waiting. Then the leadership of the movement focused in on an “autumnal cleansing” and fixated on the date October 22, 1844. True believers, who would be saved, were those who had left their churches and put their firm belief in this date. All others would be excluded and judged by Christ. Anyone who tempered their statement of belief with an “if” was not considered a true believer.

The results on October 22? The “spring disappointment” was followed by the “great disappointment.” The world went on, as if it were an ordinary day. In 1845, William Miller, disillusioned, left the Adventist movement that had been the vehicle for his message. He died, blind, of old age on his farm in Low Hampton, New York.

Miller was perhaps the most prominent American, but not the only church leader to make such a prediction. In the year 65, Hilary of Poiters announced the end of the world. In 1179, John of Toledo predicted 1186 as the end, based on the alignment of planets. Jehovah’s Witnesses used a mathematical calculation to predict the beginning of the war of Armageddon in 1914. When this prediction did not work out, the Watchtower society subsequently predicted 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975 and 1994. A fellow Christian writer, observing the Family Radio campaign, reminisced on his personal experience with the predictive pamphlet buy a NASA engineer titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. The commonality of all these predictions? They were all wrong. EVERY time a Christian leader has set a date for the second coming of Christ, it was wrong. They have claimed biblical, prophetic and divine authority, yet the failure of their predictions has proven that they lack such authority.

But in many cases, the teachers have not recanted. They have made excuses, then regrouped and set a new date, marshaling their remaining followers, as the Millerite movement did in the spring of 1844. As for Harold Camping? He seems to know how to accomplish this. In 1994, he predicted the end of the world. It didn’t happen. Yet he still remains convinced of his own authority, unwilling to heed anyone’s interpretation of Scripture besides his.

If you are a follower of Harold Camping, believing his teaching to be biblical, please hold him accountable to his words by not following his teaching any longer when this prediction fails. The parallels with William Miller are astonishing. Many who object to Camping do not do so because they reject the authority of Scripture, as Camping claims, but because they recognize that his interpretive methods have failed over and over, and they are guided by human arrogance, not the Holy Spirit. Those of us who continue to attend Christian churches do so because we believe the biblical teaching that the church, despite it’s weaknesses and failings, is the bride of Christ, not the sin-ruled world system represented by Babylon in the apocalyptic Scriptures.

Please, please, be willing to humbly repent and seek Christ in the aftermath. Do not be deluded by Camping’s silver-tongued explanations of what happened. Hold him to his own words. And be willing to seek truth on May 22 and after. He is not the first to deceive. You are not the first to be deceived. There is freedom in repentance, but bondage in prideful determination to follow falsehood. Choose repentance from false teaching.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sometimes Growth Requires a Little Less Work

I tried to avoid it. I desperately did not want to go there. I dreaded this frustrating stage of life. But it seems it was unavoidable. I have seen multiple friends of mine graduate from academic programs and enter the next phase of life, and the phase looked pretty similar for each of them. It was not the hoped-for and often expected transition of launching from a degree straight into a satisfying career or exciting ministry field. No, there is no simple mechanical process where you plug your degree into one part of a machine and watch the path to fulfillment and success come rolling out of the other side. On the contrary, it seems pretty standard to have a post-graduation lull.

I observed this lull phase in people’s lives while still working on my master’s degree. It usually involves either looking for a job (with little success) or working a job that does not really tap into your ability and potential (or degree qualifications). It often involves spending time with the family you grew up with or investing in a new marriage. This is a phase that lacks the excitement of the dreams discussed in your college dorm late at night, calls into question the ideas about the future that inspired you through the challenging and wearying bevy of academic assignments, and challenges the expectations built by watching the careers and ministries of the role models that inspired you. It’s a time of waiting, knowing that you have prepared to use your abilities in an influential, effective and satisfying way, but not knowing when the opportunity to do so will open up. It’s a sharp Bible-college grad working for the in-laws’ family business. It’s a gifted and driven business finance honors student waiting tables at Olive Garden. It’s a trained urban missionary caring for a dying grandmother in rural Ohio. It’s a a gifted seminary grad who’s Ph.D. material, painting houses.

I was going to outsmart this season of life. A year ahead of graduation, I started making plans. I was going to launch straight into my dream of serving the poor in Africa, and I wanted to leave the month after I graduated. No time in the doldrums for me! Then the Lord brought a welcome interruption to my plans, and I decided that I was more excited to marry her than to go rushing off to Africa on my own. And following the advice of experienced missionaries, we agreed that making a cross cultural move before our one year anniversary would compound the challenge of both adjustments, so we should stay put for the first year.

I didn’t think this would require me to experience the post-graduation lull, however. Immediately after we got back from our honeymoon, I launched into teaching a class at a bible college nearby, while still working in an academic program for at-risk youth. There was lots of activity, lots of productivity, and things were proceeding according to my normal, busy expectation. Then the bible class ended, and it was my final class for the academic year. Two weeks later I was informed that I couldn’t keep my education job any longer, because I had to be enrolled as a student to qualify for employment. Shortly afterward, we decided it was time to change churches, and we were in an in-between phase of local church involvement as we sought the best fit for us. What was I to do with my time? My version of the lull had settled onto me.

My lull has been far from inactive – it’s included working part-time in two different tutoring programs, training for a half-marathon, taking a Perspectives course, and cooking lots of dinners for my wife (seasoned with garlic, onions, cilantro, and lots of love). But by comparison with other phases of my life, it’s been a lull, and it has taught me deeply important lessons. It’s been difficult to pay bills pay bills each month and notice the big difference in my wife’s income compared to mine. I’ve often consoled myself in the past that I was making investments in ministry, which had far greater value than the dollar amounts on a paycheck. But some of my previous ministry opportunities have been absent for a time (i.e., because of the church transition), and my direction in ministry is shifting, though I’m still watching to see exactly how it shapes up.

I was forced to look inside and ask myself: when I don’t have a list of accomplishments at the end of the week, or a great ministry story to tell, or a respectable dollar amount on a pay stub, or ample recognition for my activity and service, where do I place my confidence? Where do I ground my identity? If I only feel I can relate to God well when I am doing and accomplishing a lot to serve him, then I have not rightly understood grace. I serve because of grace. I discover who he is and how he works through service, yes, but my identity is not in what I do, or in what I accomplish. I have been challenged to preach the gospel to myself again and again, remembering that my value, my identity, the inspiration and strength for all that I may accomplish, is in Jesus Christ. When I am tempted to self-pity because I think my circumstances should be different, I must remember that being part of Christ’s body, having been purchased with his blood, is enough. His joy is enough. His grace is enough. His peace is enough. When I am thoroughly broken of my need to accomplish things for my own sake, my own pride, my own sense of self-worth, then I can serve with sincere gospel motives. When I am able to trust the one who sovereignly and wisely guides my circumstances without protesting, complaining, and arguing as if I know better, then I am ready to accept his plan for my life. Someday I will be called to praise him in the storm. For now, I will sing to him in the lull.

Father, let your Holy Spirit dwell in me that I may reflect the image of your Son with joy, peace and trust as you work out what’s next.

“We think in terms of apostolic journeys. God dares to put his greatest ambassadors in chains.”
- Watchman Nee

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sunday School: Re-purposing A Habit of the American Church

Every Sunday, across the nation, a group of adults dutifully shuffle in to rooms in church buildings at the appointed time on a Sunday morning, arriving for “Sunday School.” In my church experience, the group has been the same crowd of people from week to week at the given church – a crowd that has attended dutifully for years, professed Christian faith for years, and heard lessons from a succession of pastors and lay-leaders for years. Some weeks I ask myself the irreverent question: is there really any point to this? Are we doing it to keep a routine and perpetuate a program only? Do we accomplish anything more than affirming people who know the right answers for knowing the right answers? I have asked this when the teacher was me, and when it was someone else. This feeling has bothered me at different churches in different traditions and in different cities. It is not a critique of any individual’s ability as a teacher, but of the habituated patterns and the educational context. This irreverent question brought me to do some reading about the origins of Sunday school, and I think in that story lies a challenge for churches today.

The Sunday school movement began, the story goes, in England during the Industrial Age. Christian people of the time saw children who lived the kind of lives described by Charles Dickens through the young street children in his stories. The people of the church at the time showed one of the distinct characteristics of God's people: they were motivated by compassion and a longing for justice. As these Christians witnessed children roaming the streets struggling to survive poverty by whatever means possible or being forced at a young age into long work days in grimy, back-breaking factory labor, they longed to help them to a better life. Various people began Sunday Schools to meet this social need. At these schools, poor children gained basic literacy skills that would allow them to advance to more financially stable lives, as well as becoming biblically literate and hearing the gospel. By joining a concern for social justice with a burden to share the gospel, young lives were impacted deeply. These schools began with a few motivated and compassionate people in cities in England and spread quickly through the British Isles and to America, largely thanks to the publicity of Robert Raikes, a newspaper owner who started a Sunday School and published articles about the movement.

Movements have a tendency, unless cared for very carefully, to begin with great vitality and purpose and gradually lose momentum as they degenerate into lifeless routines and habits. When I slip into Sunday School now, I feel little to no connection with the vital origins of the Sunday School movement.

But I have had experiences that carried the spirit of the compassionate evangelists and teachers who began Sunday Schools. (One example of this can be found here.) Although our culture now offers free education for all, a talk with the administrators, teachers and parents at many schools in America uncovers a great need for academic support for students from elementary up to high school levels. This need is especially pronounced in low-income areas, where family structures are generally weak, and families cannot afford private tutoring for students. A number of non-profit organizations are seeking to meet this need with after-school programs which depend on volunteers and community partnerships. I have seen firsthand how the direct student interaction necessary to this type of program leads to opportunities to speak about the love of Christ to students searching for meaning. A church could run such a program, including an optional activity and snack time at the end with a Bible lesson included.

What would happen if churches repurposed the volunteers, funds and time invested in Sunday School as it has been for the past couple decades to create after-school programs that look like “Sunday School” as it began? How would this affect the culture of churches – the member’s thinking about the purpose of programs (and the purpose of the church), their awareness of the needs around them, their sense of compassion for the needy, their attentiveness to creative opportunities to work with passion to reach the lost? How would it affect the perception of the church in the community around it? How many lives of students and parents would be touched by efforts to meet a real need and share Christ in the process?

We would need a new name for a different day of the week. We would need church leaders determined to change the paradigm of how ministry programs despite the potential objections of church members comfortable with routine. But we could recapture the compassionate, evangelistic drive that began Sunday School.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Breaking the Seal: Creating openings in your life to engage the unchurched

A significant problem facing the American evangelical church culture is the fact that the lives of solid Christians in our churches are, in large part, sealed off from the lives of unchurched people around us. (This problem seems to be even more pronounced in churches with a fundamentalist background) Thankfully, most members of our churches are blessed to have an entire immediate family who are Christians. It’s a beautiful thing to share faith and values with your family. This usually means that the family has spent their lives attending church together, thus developing a strong network of friendships that grow and deepen over years – another wonderful thing. The challenge that comes with these blessings is that they create the first two layers that have the potential to seal off the Christian community from the members of the community around them. Add 1 or 2 more of the potential layers – a Christian workplace, a Christian school, an additional parachurch bible study or other activity – and the Christian community successfully creates a virtually hermetic seal, closing itself off from the world with multiple layers of protection.

While this is a satisfactory arrangement if the main goals are fact-centered Christian education or producing conformity to certain behaviors, it misses an important part of Christian identity. The God who rules the Christian community is a triune God who exemplifies the sending and going identity of the church: the Father sent his Son; the Son went into the world, setting aside his glory and humbly taking on the form of those to whom he was sent; the Spirit is sent to empower Christ’s follower to go, proclaim the gospel and make disciples. For Christians to sit comfortably inside the seal of multiple layers of Christian subculture and familiar relationships, they must ignore this part of their identity in Christ. This type of separation narrows the focus of our obedience to the command to “Love your neighbor” from a sensitivity to the many lost, needy and hurting people around us to an awareness primarily of those who have been in our lives for a long time, share our beliefs, and have given or will later give something to us – i.e., a kind of love that many lost people exercise toward their families and life-long friends.

We deeply need a network of people around us who offer stability in faith, depth of relationship and encouragement to continue living the Christian life daily. And we need to encourage one another to reflect the sending and going character of the Christian life by peeling away a layer or two to make an opening in the seal. By intentionally seeking common space and shared activities with people around us who desperately need to be reconciled to God, we make ourselves available to build relationships, express love, proclaim the gospel, and reflect the attitude Christ showed in the incarnation.

Peeling away a layer can be tough: it often comes with a sense of separation and a bit of guilt over a relationship or activity that had to be phased out of life. Contact with non-believers who don’t play by the rules of Christian behavior frequently produces a painful, raw rub. But these pains rarely match up to the magnitude of change Christ experienced in taking on human form - nor the pain he experienced in being rejected, flogged and crucified by the people he was offering his love.

Living a sealed-off life calls to mind the question of Soren Kierkegaard: “How can one be Christian when he lives in Christendom?” That is, if there is no challenge in living Christian morals because your morals are constantly reaffirmed by everyone you interact with, are you exercising faith, or simply conforming socially? While Kierkegaard arrives at conclusions I disagree with, he raises poignant questions about the motivations for our actions. If we believe the gospel, we believe it has a transformative effect on people, and can give power to shine as light in the midst of darkness, to stand upright when those around bow to the threats and seductions of the world’s influence. A faith that yields transformation and that stands steadfast in the face of opposition shines brightly to the glory of God. The perpetuation of a subculture produces an interesting sociological phenomenon. Which of these results are we looking to produce?