Saturday, October 25, 2008

Reading the news with Isaiah

"Is this not the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard...

...if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light arise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
~Isaiah 58:6-8, 10

Here is a favorite Biblical theme of my generation: the burden of God that structural injustice be done away with, and personal compassion for the poor and oppressed take its place. When followers of God play a part in making these things happen, we are effective in providing glimpses of the happily-ever-after. As Americans, we are blessed with a political structure concerned with the rights of each person and so are not always exposed directly to structural injustice. We have much freedom to exercise personal compassion in a capitalist system. And believers in Christ have responded and are responding to poverty and oppression in ways that reflect the love and concern of a compassionate God. Among the untouchable castes in India, in the dark world of sex trafficing in the U.S. and abroad, and in the midst of the AIDS crisis that grips whole regions of the world.
An issue that has gotten big press in the past year has been the world food crisis, as people in places like Haiti and Ethiopia have become unable to get basic food staples due to rising food prices worldwide combined with regional crop failures or political turmoil. The oil and food prices that caused Americans the inconveniences of having to take shorter vacations, eat out less, and maybe buy fewer ipods caused men to go down to one meal a day and women and children to even less in many parts of the world. Direct giving to one of the dozens of Christian organizations working on these problems should be an automatic response for believers blessed with affluence. Even if it seems that there's nothing to spare in our own tightened budgets, we could do something as simple as eating rice for a week (like many of our brothers and sisters do on a regular basis) and appropriating the rest of our normally budgeted grocery money to help churches in underdeveloped countries feed their poor.
But what about structures and policies that exacerbate the problem? In an election year, how do we look for policies that help the global poor? There is a strong consensus among international agencies that agricultural subsidies in the Western world hurt farmers and consumers in developing countries. The most prominent example of this recently has been ethanol subsidies. Because the U.S. chose to subsidize corn crops for ethanol, grain prices became linked with fuel prices, and as fuel prices went up, so did food prices. For the sake of U.S. energy independence and dubious claims of environmental benefit, we enacted policies that hurt the poor.
As President Bush pushed for increased levels of food aid in response to the crisis, another little problem arises: U.S. laws require that any food aid sent overseas be U.S.-grown crops. This means the food-aid dollars don't go nearly as far because of transportation costs. Bush asked for a portion of the food aid to be in cash, but congress did not approve this.
Add this to the agricultural subsidies that the U.S. and Western European nations have been giving for years that raise food prices andmake it harder for farmers in developing countries to export cash crops to the Western world, and we have something that requires a thoughtful response on our part. Has our nationalism gotten in the way of our concern for the poor? Are we sacrificing the emaciated bodies of starving children on the altar of fuel independence and "stopping climate change"? Are we tilting the economic playing field in favor of American farmers at the cost of pricing the worldwide poor out of the market for the necessities of daily life? I hesitate to recommend specific policies beause politics and economics are so complicated and interrelated, but this is one that seems pretty clear. Humans, created in God's image, are a higher concern than national security (if you're a political conservative) or the potentialities of global climate change (if you're a political liberal). Nationalistic economic selfishness must give way to structures that do not make life more difficult for the poor. Where do your candidates stand on subsidies?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Reading the news with the Apostle Paul

It's a crisis. The economy of the U.S. and the world is in "crisis," "meltdown," or whatever other term garners the most political attention and sells news media. While government officials and economists debate the best way to "solve the problem," I have a few reflections on how to think Christianly about what is happening. First, the whole situation gives us a grave reminder of the greed and discontentment that drives and controls sinful human beings. As Al Mohler cited in his blog back on October 3rd,the debt of American households in 2006 was 100% of the gross domestic product. We have been one of the wealthiest nations in the world for years, enjoying luxuries far, far above what the majority of the world enjoys. Close to 3 billion people worldwide live on $2 a day or less, but we as a culture have decided that our incredibly lavish standard of living is not enough if we live within our means. No, we deserve much more, and deserve it now. We would do well to remember and to remind each other that "there is great gain in godliness with contentment." (1 Tim. 6:6) While we still have our wealth, let's use it to "be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share (1 Tim. 6:18)," not to rush headlong off the cliff of reckless borrowing to get more and more things with no lasting value. This seems like such a basic and trite idea for those of us who have been in the church for awhile, but is obviously one that is easy to forget. If contentment, discipline and generosity came easy to human beings, there wouldn't be a financial "meltdown" to solve. And as the economy takes a downward turn, possibly for a long time, this is an even more critical time to give generously and sacrificially. As we guard against risks and tighten our belts, let's nonetheless be willing to follow the example of the Macedonian church and allow our "test" to overflow in generosity. (2 Cor. 8:1-2) To be honest and personal, as one living below the poverty line and not owning stock or a home, I'm kind of liking the drop in gasoline prices thanks to the downturn...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Snapshots of the happily ever after

Here’s a thought I’ve found very inspiring as I’ve pondered the significance of seeking to help the poor, to make peace in relationships, and to do one’s dead-level best to help people out of situations that they don’t seem to want to help themselves out of. These thoughts are born out of a very practical desire: the desire to believe that my efforts are worth something in God’s eyes, even though it seems like every time one person is genuinely helped three others take a turn for the worse. Revelation 21:3-4 describes the wonderful situation of the New Jerusalem this way: “‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”
I’m afraid that too often the mindset is that this day will be great, but until then “The poor will always be with us,” so why try to tackle problems like poverty and oppression, when we have a much greater work to do in preaching the gospel? Preaching the message of the gospel is indeed the greatest call we have as Christians. And I think the current trends in evangelicalism are making our gospel no longer too small, but too big. Political activism and social programs are no substitute for life-changing spiritual truth. But if we are going to preach the hope of a coming day when the Lord Jesus will make all things perfect, then we as his followers must seek to show the world (and ourselves) glimpses of what this kingdom will be like in our own spheres of influence. In spite of our personal sins, in spite of the collected effects of all the sins in our society that distort our perception of what it means to be human and to live in community, the Holy Spirit indwelling us as believers provides the clearest picture of this future new creation that’s available during our brief chapter in the great metanarrative. Our descriptions of Jesus, the great king, and his perfect kingdom become so much more convincing when our Christian communities, as they are imbedded in their local human communities, provide sweet foretastes of what Christ’s society will be like.
The key element that can quickly be forgotten when we get excited about social engagement is that the glory of Jesus Christ must be at the center of it all. When this happens, the premillenialist has encouragement regardless of whether the effects of his or her ministry are perceived as lasting by the public. If I devote my life to aiding the poor in the slums of a city in a developing nation, the trailer parks of rural America, or a ghetto near you, there will most likely still be poor people there when I die. (If not, it’s because the city did a redevelopment project and pushed the poor people into a different neighborhood or a different city.) No matter how excited an idealistic 25-year-old can get about the money she gave or helped raise to feed the starving children in some region of Africa, the sad reality is that there will still be starving children in some region of Africa when her great-great-grandchildren are idealistic 25-year olds. The key element in these projects is that along the way snapshots of the justice, peace and love that will be evident in the final kingdom appear before the eyes of people living in a world where some days all they see is evil. If we educate, feed, and clothe the masses because we have the same kind of compassion UNICEF has, nothing happens that affects eternity. But if we give sacrificially, lovingly and compassionately and point to the coming blessings of Jesus Christ and his kingdom, then our works are pebbles tossed into a dark and polluted pond that have ripple effects that carry past the edges of that pond and into eternity.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

You will not be in heaven forever and why this matters

Just as way of introduction, I am Matt Richey, a friend, brother, and fellow seminarian of Nate Duriga's. He asked me to contribute a post to his blog and here we are. It is fitting that this follows Nate's first blog as it deals with many of the same subjects and issues. If you wish to read and provide feedback in my blog as well that would make me happy, whether you know me or not: I look forward to interacting with you and Nate in our conversations.

When you read my title, depending upon who you are and what is your theological background, you might have immediately branded me a heretic, became panicky, or were instantly bored with old and irrelevant theology. All three reactions are wrong and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.
  • If you reacted by assuming that I was a heretic, mistaken, unbiblical, or confused, you may have misunderstood the teachings of Scripture on the eternal state. The Bible does not teach that we will spend eternity in heaven. Our hope instead is based in our future bodily resurrection, made possible by the bodily resurrection of Jesus (I Corinthians 15). Romans reminds us the we look forward to 'the redemption of our body'. So we are raised bodily- I guess I knew that- but what does that have to do with heaven? Just like we are not headed for an eternity away from the body, neither are we headed for an eternity away from God's physical creation, the earth. We, and the earth, are looking forward to the day when the flawed will again become perfect, as God created it to be. As we look to the day when we will no longer sin, age, or die, so we look forward to the day when the earth will be without the curse, recreated back in line with God's original assessment: good. Romans 8, Isaiah 65, and Revelation 21 make it clear that there will come a day when God's physical creation will be freed from the effects of sin and God will create a new heavens and a new earth. It is here where we will dwell for eternity and rule with Christ, not in the celestial realm lounging on a cloud with our harps and halos.
  • If you began panicking at the thought of not spending eternity in heaven, don't! This is a good thing not a bad thing. This does not mean that we will away from God's presence, God's presence will be more obvious and enjoyable than ever before. Revelation 21:3 declares that, "...the tabernacle of God is among men and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them." This magnificent passage continues with the well known and often quoted verse, "and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away." This is not a description of heaven, as we so often assume, but of life on the new earth! The new earth will be beautiful beyond description and unmatched by any place we have ever experienced. Try and imagine life without death, pain, and evil. Attempt to describe a place without the effects of sin and the curse. We have no idea what this means because we are so used to living with these things. They've become what we think of as normal, yet this was not what God intended to be normative. What will life be like there? Something like life was supposed to be here before Adam and/or Eve (whomever you prefer to blame) messed it all up, only better. No longer will sin rear its ugly head or Satan entice us to rebel against our Maker. We will have pure and unhindered fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit.
  • The third reaction is a common reaction to theological truths, but it is perhaps the most wrongheaded of all. We are tempted (myself included) to think that theology doesn't matter or that it has no relevancy to our daily lives. Perhaps this is partly the fault of theologians and pastors whose approach to theology makes it seem so, but if this is you, you're wrong. As a professor of mine says, you always live your theology, whether you are aware of it or not. Here are several reasons I think it is important that we understand our 'earthly eternity':
  1. If we think and speak of our eternity as merely a heavenly one, we may believe, or at least communicate to others, that our destiny is merely spiritual and not physical. We may be tempted to believe that the physical does not matter because 'it's all going to burn anyway'. The physical is important to God. God created us as physical beings in a physical world with physical realities. How we handle our bodies and our world matters.
  2. We should not view or accept sin and death and pain as normal but as a perversion of God's creation. All creation groans because of the effects of sin and death; we ought to groan with it.
  3. All creation eagerly awaits the redemption of the physical, so also we ought to live in anticipation of not only a new earth, but a new us. I Corinthians 15 again: "Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory?O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." But doesn't this reinforce the idea that our physical bodies are of no importance in the here and now? Doesn't the belief that there will be a new heavens and earth support the idea that the heavens and earth we have now matters little? No more than the belief in that our justification and the forgiveness of our sins allows us to live however we want. We recognize that the way that God intended life and the way that God created the world is how it should be and what is best. Someone who lives life fleeing God's intended purpose for her will not be satisfied in her pursuits. They will all be vain and empty. A life lived as God intended and designed will come the nearest to true satisfaction in fulfilling one's purpose in this life.
  4. Living with eternity in mind ought to remind us that how God created us and the earth to be originally and how it and we will be in eternity is best also in the present. We ought to take care of this earth because God originally set us as caretakers over it. We ought to take care of our physical bodies because God created us as physical beings and our bodies are good and gifts from our Father. We ought to treat them as such. This does not that we become narcissists who worship ourselves for our own beauty nor pagans who worship the creation of the Creator; but that we are thankful, appreciative, and good stewards of God's gifts and entrusted responsibility.
  5. The last reason is similar to the second: We ought never to forget that we are not fighting a losing battle. As a premillenialist, I may be tempted with or accused of the 'its all going to pot' mentality, but this is wrongheaded thinking. God will redeem the physical. Our efforts on this earth will not end in defeat. Creation will once again be beautiful as God's original design was beautiful. Our primary mission on this earth is to 'make disciples'. This will have lasting value, not only in our temporary holding place (heaven), but upon our eternal dwelling, the new earth. We need not work with a defeatist attitude but with the realization that one day, creation will worship her creator without the effects of sin's intrusion. The work we do in this life on this earth will reverberate in the next life and upon the new earth. We are not fighting a losing battle, only a very long battle with only apparent defeats along the way.
I wish to close this with Paul's exhortation from the last verse of I Corinthians 15:

"Therefore, my brothers (and sisters), be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Why heavenly minded Christians care about earthly realities (even premillenialists!)

There seems to be a common perception that Christians in my faith community’s confessional stream – those who take a premillenial view of eschatology – only care about getting people saved out of the world, and not taking any action to make their world better. I have seen many, however, who are highly active in helping the poor, seeking to create or transform culture, and even caring for the environment. I think that premillenialists have some good reasons for being involved in these activities. While we do in fact look to heavenly realities as of greatest importance, we ought to work hard to prove false the accusations of being useless on earth. There are some good and coherent reasons why dispensational premillenialists should do this, and I want to discuss some of them in this and forthcoming posts.
We clean our houses even though we know that they will get dirty again. We mow our lawns, even though we know that the grass will grow again. One day that house will become old and dilapidated, and it will be torn down. Perhaps one day that lawn will be overgrown with weeds or seized by the EPA because it is home to a certain kind of potato bug that has become an endangered species. However, we don’t throw up our hands and say, “If that’s how this is going to end, I’m not going to put any effort into making it better now.” But why do we continue to care for it? Because most of us enjoy living in clean, attractive, and somewhat orderly places. Because the condition of our living spaces reflects on our character as individuals and our level of responsibility. And because we want to honor the preferences and expectations of our families and communities.
As believers, our care for society ought to represent the character of Someone much greater than we are. We are members of a community that will last much longer than the few years of our earthly lives. When we stand up against injustice to the poor, give generously to their needs, and invest in their lives to give them the skills and resources to overcome poverty, we do so because we want to reflect the character of Christ. Meeting their temporal needs shows them the reality of love and compassion of Jesus. If, despite our best efforts, those we help never rise out of poverty, our efforts were a success because we demonstrated the love of Christ to the observing world. Our care for society as believers, and especially a compassionate concern for the poor, reflects the character of God to the watching world. If we are never successful in eliminating all poverty (and we never will be in a fallen world), we are still successful if we are consistently showing the character of Christ by concern for the welfare of our communities, culture, and environment. Christian social action should display to the world the character of Christ.

Entering the blogosphere

The title Impoverished Sage reflects the concepts in Proverbs 2-4, where Solomon emphatically exhorts his son to get wisdom and understanding, because they are far more valuable than silver, gold or jewels. As my life story unfolds, I keep moving further away from financial abundance or security, but uncovering wisdom in God’s Word, in my experiences, in history, in the examples of the Godly men and women who are my seniors, and in the words of my brothers and sisters in the Lord who speak openly and sincerely about what God is doing in their lives. Thus far I’ve managed to achieve the Impoverished part of the title, and I hold out hope that one day I’ll have the wisdom of a Sage. Even if it takes great sacrifice to get there, I believe it will be worthwhile.
As learning occurs more effectively in community, much of what is written on this blog will be shaped by the insights gaining from those at my present community of learning, Northwest Baptist Seminary, and many contributions will be written by members of that community as well.