Friday, June 25, 2010

The Christian, The Church, The Culture

Part 1

Some further thoughts on how the combination of cultural and spiritual influences work inside the Christian's heart.

There are no cultural institutions or rhythms in our world that encourage church attendance.

It used to be that weekends were different. Businesses closed. People didn’t travel as easily. More families were raised with a sense of Sabbath. Kid’s extra-curricular activities were not scheduled on the weekends. And so forth. Instead of a weekly rhythm that at the least encouraged rest on the weekend and at most made space for church attendance, we are now immersed in a hurried 24-7 whirlwind of activity. Nothing closes…ever. And if we find a store closed in the evenings and on weekends, we are shocked and dismayed. Nothing can be scheduled in the middle of the week anymore, so more and more of our activities happen on the weekend. Making it worse, because we are so booked throughout the week and most weekends, we are tempted to take as many Sundays off as possible. For people living in the beautiful state of Colorado, that means – get outdoors and stay there!

As a result, the normal rhythms of our lives make it hard to stop and do something a little out of the ordinary – sit in one room and engage in worship for a couple of hours. (Forget attending 3 times a week.) As a result, the decision to attend a church service is exactly that – a decision. It doesn’t just “fit” into our normal schedules. And it isn’t something that “just happens.” If church life is to become a regular and healthy part of our lives, it has to become a scheduling priority.

Do you put church in our smart phone calendar like you do your lunch appointments? It may sound crass to do that, but when was the last time you missed a lunch appointment? Because the patterns of the weekly lives we lead don’t make church a priority, we need to do that. We need to put it into our rhythms and activities. And without paying attention to a detail like what we do with ourselves and church once a week (more than that?), we will succumb to the secularized patters of life.

If the patterns of life we are subject to are radically secularized, we are responsible to put the sacred back in its rightful place.

That includes the daily spiritual disciplines, our spiritual friendships and deepening our moment-by-moment walk with God, and it certainly includes the family of God.

What Passes for Socratic and Philosophical

Christopher Phillips set out to do something really exciting. He wanted to host several Socrates Caf├ęs across the world and in radically different cultures. The result is a fascinating insight into all kinds of cultural points of view I have never considered or been exposed to before. Phillips arranges open discussions among these various groups, gathers people of different ages and in different circumstances of life, and asks them some of the great Socratic questions. I really enjoyed listening in on the conversations including Navajo Indians, Koreans, second generation Muslims in America, and life-long prisoners. In almost every instance there was a variety of opinions among the people in the group, which of course added to the joy of the read.

One interesting exception to the variety of opinion was the Manhattan crowd – every one of them was a morally and intellectually confused relativist (in my opinion). Another exception to what was standard in the rest of the conversations was the group of Catholic Christians near the end of the book. Instead of an open dialogue where every opinion was accepted, the conversation was steered toward dislike for the established Catholic Church.

One other detail deserves mention. That these conversations pass for Socratic is telling. At almost no time (with the possible exception of the Catholic Christians) did Phillips push back on any answer anyone gave. The guiding principle of these dialogues seemed to be, “all views are equally acceptable,” which is to say these dialogues were not Socratic. Socrates did not ask questions because he was simply curious about what his fellow human being believed. He was after the truth, and Socrates was not above vivisecting an interlocutor to get to it. But, it seems we would rather sit, gab, and accept and call it philosophical.

More of the Same: Christian Leadership/Self-Help

Andy Stanley tells us at the very beginning of The Principle of the Path that he didn’t set out to write a self-help book, but a book about a principle. But in writing about what he calls the Principle of the Path, Stanley has succeeded in writing a self-help book. How does one avoid future personal problems? By following the principle. How does one make current decisions that may affect their futures? They follow the principle.

In its essence, I think Stanley’s principle is right. In fact, as Stanley admits, it is almost ridiculously obvious and it almost seems silly to write about it. But I can testify alongside him that too many people lack the present-day common sense it takes to get from where they are to where they want to (or ought to) be. So it has to be said, and as far as that goes, I think he has written a useful book.

My primary issue with it is the same issue I have with all Christian leadership/self-help books: they tend to treat Scripture as a grab-bag of tips and tricks. He uses plenty of Scripture throughout the book, but mostly to help identify the problems of the human heart, and when he uses it to help solve the problem, the solutions are a little simplistic. I am not sure how much good it does to suggest to someone who lacks the common sense to make good decisions now to “make better decisions!” Where is the much more needed work of how a person travels from a life of bad decisions and self-absorption to a life of godly wisdom? It is true we need to be told those things and have specific issues pointed out to us, but that can’t be the basis for real change in the human heart.

I think the core of Stanley’s book is right, but I think the solutions he offers are no different from the non-Christian self-help shelf just a few steps over in your local bookstore.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Politically Incorrect Cause and Effect

This truth is both obvious and morally uncomfortable: the primary causes of AIDS are certain sexual behaviors. Which of course makes it a politically incorrect untruth. The bioethicist Wesley J. Smith details some of the facts on his prolific blog, Secondhand Smoke.

The Christian, The Church, The Culture

I have been thinking lately about the combination of church and culture in the hearts of American Christians. Actually, as a pastor, you might say this issue is ingrained in what I do on a weekly basis, but nonetheless, it has been on the surface in recent days. Where does church fit into our priorities and schedules? How are we acculturated to view our spiritual selves? How much of that do we bring into our weekly church habits? Is church (as we know it) really all that important in the long run? So, as any decent blogger, I thought I would think out loud about a few things.

There are no major, publicly accepted institutions that enforce the importance of the spiritual.

The biblical view, which I believe is the accurate anthropological view, is that everything is spiritual (with apologies to Rob Bell). Though we are accustomed to a view in which our normal, day-to-day lives are lived in a non-spiritual and wholly “secular” world, it is more accurate to say that there is nothing that is not God-soaked.

Three of the primary influences in our culture create and reinforce the compartmentalization of our spiritual awareness: politics, journalism, and the university. In the world of politics, religion and spirituality play a unique, if not corrosive role. It is not uncommon, even among the least personally spiritual politicians, for candidates to invoke God or religion in some way. But even if they call it a “personal matter” or utter phrases like, “God bless America,” it is understood that their personal religious beliefs will remain private. They claim it in the public sphere, but they claim it to be only subjectively meaningful. And that is why I call it a corrosive role. We end up learning that the only right role for religion is subjective – religion does not belong in the public square. But because many of our public leaders claim some kind of religious conviction, we are lulled into the sense that a completely private spirituality is all we need. Our political sensibilities simply do not help us understand the proper role of Christian spirituality in our lives.

Journalism is even worse. An industry that is dedicated to up-to-the-second information with little to no context leaves us little to no room for rumination and reflection. If you wanted to, you could find a way to be inundated with “facts” and information 24/7. You would be, in one sense of the term, “informed” but you would have little to know actual understanding about anything you now have rolling around in your head. Headlines are poor substitutes for thought. Come to think of it, a lifestyle of headlines becomes a roadblock to sustained thought.

Add to that the growing reality that most of what passes for mainstream journalism is heavily influenced by a point of view, and you have a recipe for group-think.

For centuries Christians have been known as “people of the book,” meaning not only that they are guided by Scripture, but that they ought to be comfortable with the kind of intellectual and spiritual work that is done through the Book. We are not headline people who jump to quick and dirty conclusions. We are people who soak in the wisdom of the ages through each and every season of life. The wise Christian is a different creature than the well-informed news-junkie.

And then there is the ubiquitous influence of the western university. More and more these institutions have become degree factories in which students pursue a technical degree aiming at getting a high-paying job on the other end. Along the way, some of them are forced to take a required number of “humanities” credits, which in my experience, is not always a welcome experience for them. “Will this help me find a job?” seems to be the guiding principle for both the school and the student.

“Will this help me be a better human being?” is a question neither knows how to answer. But it is ultimately the question for all of us to answer. The Christian’s primary concern here is about the spiritual formation of the human person under God and not how much money they will make in their lives or how much technical skill they possess. If a person becomes wealthy is neither here nor there. Wealth is a tool that can be used virtuously by the well-formed soul, or viciously by the malformed soul. But this is not how we are trained in the world around us, and these concerns are left unanswered and un-addresses by our typical university system.

So then, who will teach us what the spiritual life under Christ looks like? And maybe it is more a matter of modeling/living out the importance of the spiritual than teaching it (in the sense of instructing it).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Governments, Non-Profits, and the Homeless

Our humble town, Colorado Springs, has been through a recent debate over what to do with what has become a very visible homeless problem in the past few months. These issues are never quick or clean, and cities will always have its critics no matter what they do. But our homeless tent cities were becoming a public and health hazard, so something needed to be done. This article in our local paper summarizes what has been a tremendous series of events for the city and the homeless, beginning with our city and county making it hard to “camp.”

So here is what happened. First the city and county made it hard to stay homeless for a long time in the tent cities that were springing up through the center of town – they made it illegal to camp on city and county property. Second, a local, private foundation provided funds for the recently dispossessed homeless to have temporary housing. But, as one worker put it, there were conditions:

Homeward Pikes Peak executive director Bob Holmes makes it clear, however, that there were strings attached: Those who get a motel room are required to beat the streets to find a job.

Third, a few more local individuals attached to another local nonprofit stepped up to the plate and helped the homeless find jobs. The result?

Don’t tell Teresa McLaughlin it’s impossible to land a job in Colorado Springs. She knows 103 people who have found work in the past 100 days, beating enormous odds that had as much to do with their circumstances as the economy.

Looks like a win-win from here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Funerals Are A Pain

Funerals are a pain. And I don’t mean that in the sense that they are an annoying inconvenience – they are pain. They mark the passing of family or friend, and they stand as that public moment when we all grieve, love on each other, and make steps toward a new normal without the one we loved. As a pastor I sometimes get to watch as families deal with their loss while the pain is very fresh and sometimes the members of families are all at very different places at the same time. One thing I have never appreciated about some is their immediate tendency to try and brush aside the grief with something like, “at least they are in a better place.” Though that is true for those who die with Christ, and though that truth is part of the healing process, we ought not to short-circuit the process of death and grief so quickly.

A recent article in CT deals with the new book, The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come, by Rob Moll. In the article we are encouraged to think more about funerals as an act of spiritual formation and even community formation under Christ. We are, after all, people of a crucified and risen savior living in inevitable physical decay. We ought to therefore embody a community of resurrection – and remember that resurrection implies death. Rob Moll notes:

We live in a culture that has forgotten how to help people measure their days. Through medicine and science, we know more about death and how to forestall it than ever before. Yet we know little about how to prepare people for the inevitable. The church is a community that teaches people how to live well by teaching them how to measure their days. Put another way, when the church incarnates a culture of resurrection—one that recognizes the inevitability of death but not its triumph—it teaches people how to die well.

Have we become so obsessed with living well or living comfortably that we have lost sight of dying well as part of the spiritual act of the believer? If we have neglected this, does it betray a lack of confidence in the providential guidance of God in all seasons of life?

The article is very thoughtful, and I heartily recommend it.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Prayer of Suffering

Last night in our Tuesday Night Discipleship Study we continued through Richard Foster’s book, Prayer, and came to the topic of “The Prayer of Suffering.” I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I started the chapter, but it wasn’t long before I found what Foster had to say to be compelling and entirely in accord with Scripture and life with Christ.

The “Prayer of Suffering” is not a prayer to have more suffering in life (Christians are not masochists) and it is not even the prayer to eliminate suffering from our lives. It is a prayer – or even more appropriately, a way of living life with others under Christ – of redemptive suffering. Foster says, “Here we give to God the various difficulties and trials that we face, asking him to use them redemptively. We also voluntarily take into ourselves the griefs and sorrows of others in order to set them free.” (pg. 217)

Our ultimate example of redemptive suffering is Christ on the cross. There, he took the pinnacle of unjust punishment, bore our sins, and died in our place. Through the suffering of the cross, Christ redeemed not just our eternal souls, but all the pain and suffering we endure in this life. I think it can be said that without the cross and the empty tomb, suffering is nothing but the nihilistic struggle it feels like, but with Christ it can be a vehicle for our redemption.

And it isn’t just Christ. The apostle Paul wrote that he endured all kinds of things in order to proclaim the Gospel, and that he rejoiced in that the Gospel was proclaimed in spite of his own pain (Col. 1:24-29; Phil 3:8-11). Then he encouraged us to do the same as we go through life with those we love (Galatians 6:2, Romans 12:15).

There is so much more to be said, but I encourage you if you are a disciple of Christ to learn what it means to live through your suffering and the suffering of those you love in a redemptive way. We keep our eyes and lives on Christ the author and perfector of our faith who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross and despised its shame (Heb 12:1-2).

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Bonhoeffer - A Man for our Time

One Christian theologian recently remarked that one of the problem with the modern church is that we are not producing any “scholar saints.” These are the leaders who love God with all their minds in provocative and even ground-breaking ways, and live exemplary lives revealing the glory of God to the world. An example of one such Christian leader in recent memory might be Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A much publicized biography by Eric Metaxas aims at recovering a holistic view of his life and remind us of how important a figure like Bonhoeffer is right now.

From a Crosswalk article by Kelley Mathews, Metaxas notes:

"The singular thing about Bonhoeffer that recommends him to this generation is that he calls us to a closer, authentic walk with Jesus, not just a merely religious walk, but one of true obedience to Jesus Christ," says Metaxas. "His life asks us, 'How do we live as authentic Christians all the way, in the face of struggles and evil?'"

"He is a model for living the authentic Christian life. Bonhoeffer is the ultimate example of someone who is discerning and obedient to Jesus in the deepest way. I believe that God gives us illustrations from history, and the life of Bonhoeffer is one of those. He is an example to believers of what it looks like to negotiate the difficulties of life, to deal with evil as a serious, devout, mature Christian."

From the handful of things I know about Bonhoeffer, here are a couple of thoughts on why his influence is so important to us.

First: his scholarship. His academic and pastoral work ranges from rather technical works on ethics and ecclesiology to more popular writings on discipleship and his letters from prison. The more I read works like “The Cost of Discipleship,” the more convinced that their enduring qualities owe more to the deeper work in the background done by the author than we may realize.

Second: his pastoral leadership. He was radically separate from the mainstream Lutheran influence of his day, which eventually required him to form community for those who were leaving comfortable lives to join in following Christ in uncomfortable ways. The Christian church today needs iconoclasts who are unafraid to disconnect themselves from what Luther called the “Babylonian captivity.” Bonhoeffer was that man for his time.

Third: his martyrdom. He wasn’t a dissenter for the sake of dissent. He clung to Christ when the price was as high as it could possibly be. Do we loosen our grip on Christ too easily? Do we spend more time than we are willing to admit straddling lines of discipleship to Christ and to the world?

There is much more to be said about Bonhoeffer, so I look forward to getting into Metaxas’ book.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Holy Reason, Happy Human

I have mentioned that our LHC book club recently read Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. After reading the book a second time (and being thoroughly impressed a second time), I read up on Anselm and the book, and discovered it was quite the theological and philosophical revolution at the time. One of the passages that stuck out to me was the first chapter of the second book titled, “How man was made holy by God, so as to be happy in the enjoyment of God.” The first few sentences are provocative.

It ought not to be disputed that rational nature was made holy by God, in order to be happy in enjoying Him. For to this end is it rational, in order to discern justice and injustice, good and evil, and between the greater and the lesser good. Otherwise it was made rational in vain. But God made it not rational in vain. Wherefore, doubtless, it was made rational for this end. In like manner is it proved that the intelligent creature received the power of discernment for this purpose, that he might hate and shun evil, and love and choose good, and especially the greater good. For else in vain would God have given him that power of discernment, since man’s discretion would be useless unless he loved and avoided according to it. But it does not befit God to give such power in vain. It is, therefore, established that rational nature was created for this end, viz., to love and choose the highest good supremely, for its own sake and nothing else;…

What strikes me is the capacity that is made holy by God in order for us to be happy in him: our rationality. We were given this capacity for a purpose. It is intended to judge rightly between right and wrong, good and evil, and even make distinctions between lesser and greater goods. The exercise of my mental capacities is an act of sanctification, or redemption, of holiness to the end that I may be happy in God.

Put the other way around, I am happiest in God when this capacity is used to its utmost. The highest use my reason can attain is to supremely love the supreme good – God. And I learn to love him for his own sake and not for what he does or does not do.

Do I love God with all my mind?

This Story Couldn't Get Any Weirder...Could It?

Now it is being reported (here, here) that Ted Haggard's new church, St. James, is holding a lottery on the first week with the offering. If your name is picked, you get 10% of what is given that morning.

I'm going to stop now before I say something unbecoming.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Here We Go...

This guy is drunk on publicity. Who but polititians, publicists and actors call press conferences to announce their next career move?


It is a new church. Shocker.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

God Cannot Lie - Yet He is Perfect

It is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). We have been reading through Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo for LHC book club, and in it he wrestles with the issue that there are things God does not/cannot do and is still perfect and worthy of praise. The specific issue in his work is the fact that God “cannot” lie – not, does not or will not, but cannot. How can it be that there is something (maybe several things?) God cannot do, and yet remain perfect in his being – omniscient, omnipotent, etc.?

Using lying as the example, here are couple of thoughts about answering this question. (Below, I only speak of lying in the derogatory sense of “deliberate misguidance” and not the more delicate notions of lies that have good consequences, lies of ignorance, or any other shade of the act of lying.)

There are some capacities we gain or dispositions we develop through life that make us better people – we are greater because of them. When we learn how to perform certain mathematical functions, or learn that knowledge is better than deliberate ignorance, or we learn that sharing is better than selfishness, we become better and more capable people because of them. Then there are capacities or dispositions that take the exact opposite course in the maturing life. Infants are inherently selfish, so as we lose that disposition, we mature. So understood, the capacity or disposition to lie falls into the second category. Our ability to lie and God’s inability to lie make us less mature and him perfectly mature.

The disposition or capacity to lie does not make a character better, but worse. Lying is one less disposition/capacity God has, but as such, that makes God’s nature more perfect, not less. My disposition to lie makes my character less perfect, and the greater my disposition to lie, the worse my character becomes. Part of the growth, maturity, even spiritual formation of a human includes the disposition of truth-telling becoming stronger than lying.

Hence, God’s utter inability to lie speaks to his complete perfection. God cannot lie because his character is not tainted at all with the vice of lying.

I have so far used the words “capacity” and “disposition” to describe the ability to lie, but I now want to cross “capacity” off the list and assert that only truth-telling is a capacity. Lying is a corruption of the capacity, and thus is a vicious and corrosive disposition. The virtue of truth-telling is corrupted by the degree to which I am disposed to lie.

Truth-telling and lying are not the exact opposites of the same moral coin; they are not a ying-yang of human interaction. Truth-telling is better understood as the ubiquitous and necessary requirement for all human interaction, and hence the foundational virtue. In all human interaction we rightly begin with the assumption of truth-telling unless we have a reason to believe otherwise. And using those instances in which we have reason to suspect malfeasance as examples, we can quickly see why the universal assumption of lying would be devastating to relationships. Virtues (moral goods) are logically prior to vices (moral evils) and are hence properly understood as capacities. As Augustine put it, moral evils are only privations of the good, and hence are only corrosive dispositions and not capacities.

In addition, God freely cannot lie. When presented with the idea that it is “impossible” for God to lie, we are tempted to think that God is out of luck with his own free will, and thus is not free with regard to lying and truth-telling. But, in the context set so far, God’s virtue of truth-telling is perfect and he is complete in his freedom to not lie.

There is no external force outside of God that coerces him to always tell the truth and never lie, thus making his truth-telling some kind of nefarious necessity. But instead of arguing along the lines of external causes, we see in our construal so far that God is, within his own character, perfect with regard to truth-telling.

Imagine your progression from more lying to more truth-telling as your character improves. Let us say that you have set the personal and spiritual goal of becoming more Christ-like, and through the exercise of the spiritual disciplines and the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, your desire to lie in any and every situation diminishes over time. With each step along the way, you are still able to lie all you want to, which increasingly is less and less. You lie less not primarily because you are less free to lie, but because you are more free and more willing to use your freedom to tell the truth. Taken to a logical extreme, you can imagine a point at which you will not lie (it will become “impossible” for you to lie) exactly because your freedom and willingness to tell the truth becomes complete. And though, arguably, no human on earth will reach that point of virtuous perfection, God stands as the model of that very thing.

So how is it that it is impossible for God to do something like lie, and still be perfect in his being? It is because certain dispositions are a detriment to a virtuous character and for God not to have those is in fact proof of his perfect and magnificent being.

Vacation Haiku

Aspen Green

Aspen leaves press up
Through sap and vein in white wrap
Rain, soil, sun turn green