Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Parable in First Person

Please be advised before reading: this is not a journal entry in which I am seeking praise or pity, but a parable.

I desired to show the love of Christ to the poor and needy - to preach the gospel to the poor and bind up the brokenhearted. So I set myself to this task with commitment and resolve. I began giving, serving, teaching, sharing, spending time, and appealing to others to do the same.

Because of the generosity of the Father in giving his Son, I wanted to give generously, so that the world would see his goodness. Because of the unconditional love of God, I wanted to love others unconditionally - especially those who had so little love in their lives. Because God had poured out so many blessings on my life, I wanted to bless others. Because Jesus came in the form of a servant, I wanted to serve others. So I gave, I loved, I blessed, I served.

And the goal was accomplished! And the people I gave things to thanked me. And the people I loved gave me affection in return. And many around me declared that I was a blessing to others. And many applauded my servant’s heart. And my goal was accomplished, and I felt satisfaction, and I praised God.

Again, I desired to share God’s love with the poor and needy - to live out the gospel among the last, the lost and the least. I began giving, serving, teaching, sharing, spending time, and appealing to others to do the same.

Because of the sacrifice the Father made in giving his Son, I wanted to give sacrificially so that the world would see his goodness. Because of the unconditional love of God, I wanted to love others with abandon - especially those who are hard to love. Because God had poured out so many blessings on my life, I wanted to be a blessing to others. Because Jesus poured himself out as a servant, I wanted to pour myself out in service to others. So I sacrificed, I loved, I was gracious, I served.

And the goal was accomplished! These characteristics of God, at the heart of his requirements for mankind, were displayed in my life. But the people I gave things to did not thank me. And the people I showed affection to were cold in return. And no one ever told me I was a blessing. And many toilsome months of service went by in obscurity, without praise or applause. And my goal was accomplished - the lost and needy were served in the name of Christ. But I felt no satisfaction, and I complained about ungrateful people, and I bitterly sought for a different place to serve.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Christ and Culture in Paradox (returning to the Christians and Politics series)

Thinking Christianly has so many ethical implications. From the content of our conversations, to our business and employment, to our relationship decisions and sexual behavior, to our personal financial decisions, on to our family lives and so many other things; accepting the gospel as truth and Christ as the ruler of our lives requires us to examine our behavior in light of good theology. And some would say that the body of Christ must also work to bring godly behavior in society around them. Surely if we are in relationship with non-believers around us, our regenerate behavior will influence them to some extent (and if they become believers, to a much greater extent). But does this extend to political advocacy for Christian morals? Well, let me think about it…(and a teacher I know says, “Show your metacognition,” so I will.)
I think this issue is a subset of the larger issue of how Christianity relates to culture. I worked my way through the classic book Christ and Culture (by Richard Niehbur) last year, and as he described and critiqued the ways that the church has related to culture throughout history, three of the approaches he described were “Christ against culture,” “Christ redeems culture,” and “Christ and culture in paradox.” The non-engagement idea I critiqued in my last post would fall under Christ against culture, arguing that the culture of politics is hopelessly corrupt, so Christians should condemn that corruption and avoid being part of its activities and institutions. The second view, Christ as redeemer of culture, seems to be an incredibly popular view right now Many groups are striving to be a part of the activities of culture and infuse them with gospel significance, guided by Christian principles, so that our culture is transformed to reflect what God values and souls are saved. People in this camp love to talk about the “cultural mandate” and say things about being on mission “to the culture.”

While this approach certainly bears a lot of good fruit in spreading the gospel by engaging the culture instead of retreating from it, there’s something that bugs me about it. While it is clearly stated that we are on mission to share the gospel, make disciples, teach those disciples God’s ways, and baptize, we are not told explicitly to bring the culture to salvation. So why make it a “mandate” or “mission”? We must know culture so that we can effectively communicate the gospel to the people in it. And in a sense we are always creating culture by our activities - and especially enculturating people into Christian community, where we are guided by Christian distinctives (with a bunch of non-distinctive thrown in because they are just part of everyday life). But I fear elevating cultural influence to the same level as gospel witness. Doesn’t this make it easier to go down the path of viewing culture-shapers in art, music, literature, government, entertainment, etc as special, more valuable trophies of conversion? Doesn’t this make it more natural to think that by promoting moral values that agree with Christianity we are doing something equal to guiding people to forgiveness through the cross, regeneration through the Holy Spirit, and eternal salvation?
So reading and reflection led me to think that “Christ and culture in paradox” fit more accurately with my understanding of Scripture. In this view, we are constantly living with the (healthy) tension of being citizens of the heavenly kingdom and dwelling on the sin-scarred earth. Believers have a faith in the “not yet” kingdom of Christ so powerful that it tangibly affects the “already” (living under the spiritual rule of Christ in a fallen world). Christians live in the world, and cannot live without affecting and being affected by culture. But making national cultures into Christian cultures would be a silly endeavor, because cultural transformation will not be made complete until the “not yet” of Christ’s coming reign, and our progress in Christianization could be undone at any moment. Our cultural impact is a sign of the right living to come. Kingdom ethics and divine justice will be established, and the world knows this because Christians exemplify and proclaim this good news, sometimes with the approval of their culture-at-large, and sometimes to a resentful and downright nasty response. In this view culture is acknowledged without being demonized or glorified, and cultural influence fits into the paradox of using finite life on a decaying planet to point toward never-ending life on a restored planet when heaven comes to earth.

With this mental superstructure in place, we can now construct the office of Christianity and politics. While many thinkers throughout history have conceptualized Christendom, I think that the label should be “Christianity and evangelism.” With the assumption that evangelism means proclaiming and living the implications of the good news of God’s salvation and coming reign through Jesus Christ, we ought to assess any political involvement that will be performed under the label “Christian” or “evangelical” in terms of how it will relate to our evangelism. If we are convinced that our action will give us more and better opportunities to share the full message of God’s revelation in a loving and truthful way, then we can vote, advocate, and campaign with no hesitations. This does not mean that there should be no opposition or protest to the policies - sometimes doing what is best for society does not make its members happy. We just need to make sure our actions are making the church a more effective witness in the world, not simply promoting empty moralism or cultural values that are not distinctively Christian (e.g., low taxes and small government, prohibition of alcohol, the right to bear arms)

We ought to ask ourselves: when we oppose gay marriage, or we oppose giving out condoms, are we helping our gospel witness by working for a societal structure where sin is called sin? Or are these actions perceived as hateful or lacking compassion, and simply making sinners more stubborn and hardened because we are trying to force them to live in a godly manner before they have been regenerated and transformed by the gospel?

More must be said…but on another day.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Beautiful Rage…An Epic Fury…A Loving Wrath

God’s wrath is often something we would like to sweep under the rug and ignore: it can be a bit awkward to talk about in a culture that values tolerance and niceness (or at least claims to). But as I have been thinking about anger recently for a research paper and some good in-depth conversations with smart friends, I discovered a way of looking at God’s anger that is, well, kind of beautiful. Read on.
Feelings of anger are part of the common human experience, and psychologists and counselors commonly define anger as an emotional response to threats. With this view, it’s not hard to conclude that anger is based on human finitude. Developing a Christian view on anger requires making the critical decision between identifying anger as an emotion that is tied to the limitations of being human, or as an emotion exercised by God and thus made for a good purpose in spite of the negative effects it often yields in the hearts of sin-corrupted humanity. When considering the anger of Christ portrayed in the gospels, Andrew D. Lester, in an interesting article called Toward a New Understanding of Anger in the Christian Experience, asks, “Did Jesus sin by being angry?” And he responds, “No, it was part of his humanness.” Thus Christ could express this human trait appropriately, congruent with his identity as God. But Lester never acknowledges it as an emotion characteristic of the Creator himself.

But what about the references to Father being angry? Are these merely human language to describe a God who in reality lives in a stoic and detached existence? And if anger is an emotional response to threat, what could possibly threaten God to make him angry? Lester observes in another part of his article that “We extend our selfhood into other people, such as parents, spouses, children, heroes, and friends” Anger can be just as easily aroused in a person by threats to people, institutions, or things that person has become attached to or invested in. And seriously, folks, if a bully punched a kid in the nose, took his lunch money and gave him a wedgie and the kid’s parents stood there watching, but never got angry, what would you think of the parents? Would the kid still believe his parents loved him? We can debate the best actions to respond with, but the emotion of anger in this situation shows loving concern.

I will go a step further than Lester, then, and say that anger in God is his appropriate response to sin. Sin threatens humanity, his creation, and especially the people he has chosen and redeemed out of humanity. He views these people as connected to him, an extension of himself, and so his wrath boils against sin. When unrepentant and unregenerate people act against the people of God, his anger is justly aroused, to the point that he has determined a punishment of eternal death against those who unrepentantly continue to pose a threat to the good order of Creation.

And you know what? This means that becoming angry may be one of the most touching and profound things that God does for us. He has invested himself into the people he has created and redeemed. And he cares so much about our well-being and our destiny that, even though he is not put in any danger when we are threatened, he gets angry because it threatens us! God becomes legitimately angry when the people or things that he has created, claimed and redeemed for himself are threatened - and sin is the greatest threat that can come against any of these things. By showing us a God who gets angry, the Bible shows us a God who cares.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Afraid of the Dark (and the Light)

A Prayer I penned recently:

I am so afraid of my weakness
Afraid that in some moment
Blinded by lust
Gripped by a craving to be noticed
Threatened with truth’s consequences
Squeezed toward conformity
Allured by the fleeting
Seduced by comfort
Fancying that I deceive God
I will deceive myself
Neglect the carefully nurtured shoots of
Trampling them in clumsy haste
And be destroyed by my sin

I am so afraid of my strength
Which comes through brokenness
Dying to myself to find his life
Surrendering security for hope
Trusting a God known to wound
Forsaking recognition for obscurity
Neglecting comfort for compassion
Clearing out my dearest idols
My appetites will scream with longing
Subordinated to loving worship
My ego will scowl indignantly
Bruised, crushed, nailed to the cross
But I will be satisfied with the life of the Divine