Saturday, September 27, 2014

Suffering For The Church, And Loving It!

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Colossians 1:24

What commonly strikes us about this passage is the phrase, “I rejoice in my sufferings,” and it is startling, indeed. Most of us are not accustomed to, much less comfortable with, suffering so we wonder how on earth someone can say something like this. It dawned on me, however, that the substance of Paul’s statement is not about his suffering, but about the institution and people for whom he suffers. In fact, Paul’s vision of that organization, the Church, is so powerful his sufferings pale in comparison. But do not make the mistake of thinking they become less important to him because of the surpassing importance of the Church. His suffering does not “fade into the background” – it becomes something new and powerful and a reason for rejoicing.

The Church is just that important to people who are called to give their lives to the church. Pastor, this means you. And disciple of Jesus Christ, you are not exempt.

Paul suffered greatly in order to take the most important message a human can hear around the Mediterranean world and many of his exploits are dramatically recounted in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. There are pastors and Christians around the world today who still face the same kinds of obstacles and trials because they bear the name of Christ, but many in the West (today) do not experience suffering of the same sort. This does not mean, however, the pastor does not suffer for the flock.

Try building a meaningful vocation in which the definitions of success are diametrically opposed to the definitions of success in the culture around you. This means that when people look at your work and gauge your value, they are measuring apples (which often do not exist in “desired” numbers) when you are striving to grow oranges. Not only is the tension of success a struggle brought to the pastor from outside him or herself, it sits deep within their own hearts. We grew up in this culture, too. We also see the celebrity and financial status of those who have “succeeded” and we wonder what has gone wrong with us. We need to have poison drawn from our own minds as well, and it does not always leave easily.

Pastors and committed disciples of Christ rejoice when someone comes to put their trust in Christ, and they rejoice at every step along the way when that life shows signs of Christ himself. But because our work is so connected with the people God created and loves, we feel deep pain at those who drift in the opposite direction. In some ways, the life of the pastor is constant heartbreak. At the end of Paul’s list of stonings, floggings, and shipwrecks, he lists what sounds like the greatest burden he endures, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (vs. 28).

But the life of the Church and those within it is so valuable, Paul has actually learned that when he exerts tremendous effort, when he prays until he weeps himself dry, when he exhausts himself and the Church is built, it is all joy.

Do we seek exhaustion and pain? Of course not. But can we learn to place our trials and efforts for the sake of Christ and his Church in a new context? Of course we can – and we should. And it begins with reevaluating what we consider valuable in this world and what we are willing to give for its health.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"God is wrathful because God is Love"

"I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of god’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love."

Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), pp. 138-139.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Church In Antioch: A Church In The City

Acts 11 tells the story of a new church in a big city.  Because of persecution Jewish Christians scattered out of Jerusalem and some of them made it 300 miles north to the major metropolis of Antioch. While Jerusalem was large, Antioch was larger and more diverse. History tells us it was the Mediterranean’s third largest city of the day, sitting at the crossroads of every major economy and ethnic group in the area. When the Romans conquered the area it left the city basically intact, declared it free, made it the seat of the Roman governor in the region, and absorbed much of the residual Syrian religion. As a result a large temple just outside of the city was adapted for the Roman pantheon and became famous for its cultic prostitution. Antioch was advanced and dynamic. It was also debauched.

During the 30’s AD, Christians began to show up and preach, as Luke puts it, that Jesus is Lord. The church grew among the Jews in the city and then quickly spread to the Gentiles. The church grew and drew the attention of the apostles in Jerusalem. They sent Barnabas, Barnabas brought Saul, and within a generation the church at Antioch surpassed the influence of Jerusalem and became the center of the early church for nearly two hundred years. The disciples in Antioch were so dynamic, it was there they were first labeled, “little Christs.”

The church in Antioch gives us some important things to think about.

Often the “foreign mission” is across the street or across town from us. When they first arrived the Christians preached only to the Jews. But Antioch was full of “others” who needed to hear and it was not long before they did. And because the church was actively opening its arms to literally everyone, a dynamic and powerful church was built. Every church in every modern city is not far from people who are drastically different. They are from different cultures and they have different native tongues. But the church has never (when it is right with God) been turned off by that. More than ever, the modern city, even of modest size, is full of “mission field” people. We send missionaries around the globe and we ought to send them across town.

The church preached a simple message: “Jesus is Lord.” It was clearly full of the message of the resurrected Savior, but Luke notes its simple and effective focus in a pluralistic, pagan culture. Jesus is unique and he alone is Lord of all. He is greater than all other idols and forms of worship, and the human soul will find its rest alone in him. Without neglecting the full gospel, the contemporary church can learn from a simple laser focus of a message like this. No other substitute for God will do for human experience.

The church was unafraid to throw its message into a crowded and hostile public square. They could have stayed in the corner of culture where they found relative comfort in the Jewish neighborhoods and Synagogues, but they did not. They stepped out into the fray and talked about Jesus to the Romans and Persians on their way to their temple sacrifices. And it worked. It can be fairly said that the greatest mistake the church can make in the city is to fail to step out into the public area with the objective and powerful truth of Jesus Christ.

New Atheism's New Problems

After a period of pop-culture bullying on its part, there appears to be a growing backlash against the bluster of what is often called New Atheism.  At a recent conference called TAM, one of the leading skeptics in the movement was accused of getting one girl drunk and raping her. This long article at Buzzfeed tells the story and then expands its focus to talk about a broader culture of abuse within the movement. A family friendly version of the account can be found here at ENV. In part it states,

The reality of sexism in freethought is not limited to a few famous leaders; it has implications throughout the small but quickly growing movement. Thanks to the internet, and to popular authors like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Sam Harris, atheism has greater visibility than at any time since the 18th-century Enlightenment. Yet it is now cannibalizing itself. For the past several years, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and online forums have become hostile places for women who identify as feminists or express concern about widely circulated tales of sexism in the movement. Some women say they are now harassed or mocked at conventions, and the online attacks — which include Jew-baiting... — are so vicious that two activists I spoke with have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. One of these women has been bedridden for two years.

Add to that the more recent tumbling of another New Atheist hero, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has been caught in various untruths and misattributions. When called on the carpet for these mounting untruths, his response has been decidedly unscientific.  What matters is the theater of the moment, not the facts.

Even more disturbing is the defense you hear from Tyson himself and from his legions of fans: that the accuracy of the quotes doesn’t really matter, they’re just convenient illustrations to get attention, get people thinking, and promote his pro-science message.
 But there’s the rub, isn’t it? How do you promote a pro-science message by saying that the facts don’t really matter?

I think two issues stick out as a result of these accusations.

First, much of what has passed for science and the supposed rational superiority of atheism/naturalism has largely been the result of public force and intimidation, not reasoned argument. The perceived strength of New Atheism is a classic case of the emperor having no clothes. Dawkins' books are used in college philosophy classes as examples of bad argumentation. Reading Hitchens' books is an exercise in listening to someone espouse and believe in attacks on the Christian faith that were exposed as empty one hundred years ago. Engage an ardent atheist and 99 times out of 100 you will uncover argumentative fallacies, emotional aggravation, intimidation, and belittling.  It is a bitter fact of public atheism today - very little of it is philosophically reasoned.

That is not to say there is not any philosophically robust atheist thought out there. It just doesn't see the light of day among New Atheists right now. Anyone can still read Russell or the pre-conversion Antony Flew, but apparently not many of the new-fangled apologists for metaphysical naturalism do.

Second, does atheism have the moral chops necessary to correct these problems? Will the atheist community even see them as problems?  And here is the deeper philosophical question. Atheism lacks an objective moral standard. So it will not, in the long run, be able to condemn immorality in any kind of substantive fashion. For example, a worldview cannot simultaneously mock and politic against the Christian values of chastity and marriage and condemn sexual misadventure. In the short run it sure seems they can, because in many instances they try very hard to do so.  But once the dust settles from the accusations and the emotions of the moment, a question remains. Says who?

Every atheist attempt at grounding moral judgment fails to find solid ground outside of subjective human judgment or cultural consensus. This is, by nature of the worldview, necessarily true. Kant, who felt the unflinching reality of moral realities, worked hard to develop an utterly rationalistic morality. But even his Categorical Imperative fails its own test. The Utilitarianism of Mill and Rousseau’s nature - these and many more are valiant yet failed attempts at grounding morality without appealing to a personal being beyond our cultural conventions.

So the new atheist relies often on current political notions of "progress" and moral ideas that are easy to enforce via propaganda and sitcoms in our cultural atmosphere. But all those things are intellectual sand castles and it takes almost no time and effort to rationally disagree. And by virtue of the nature of relativism, the very act of disagreeing renders them impotent. So I disagree. Atheism does not have a rational standard that allows it to call chastity prudish, celebrate sexual liberation, and at the same time condemn sexual abuse. It also apparently does not have the philosophical courage to claim a scientific “just the facts, ma’am” stance and call out its hero de jour for propagandistic falsehoods.

New Atheism has a growing problem, and it isn’t recalcitrant Christians. It is its lack of firm footing for its own belief system and lifestyle.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Screwtape And Heaven On Earth

"The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unraveling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the Earth....So inveterate is their appetite for Heaven, that our best method, at this stage, of attaching them to Earth is to make them believe that Earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or 'science' or psychology or what not."

C.S. Lewis

Screwtape, Letter XXVIII

Monday, September 15, 2014

God Shows No Partiality. Neither Should We.

Part of the simple logic of the Christian faith flows from the nature of God. God reveals himself to
have certain qualities, and since his people belong to him, they ought to begin displaying the same qualities.  At a crucial point in the life of the early church, the typically heavy-footed Peter came face to face with this logic when he entered the home of Cornelius the Roman Centurion.

Peter had been raised, along with all his Jewish brothers and sisters, to believe that Gentiles were beneath them and the Romans were oppressors who needed to go.  But one afternoon he was praying on a rooftop on the shore of the Mediterranean when God began to change that. While he was staying in the home of a leather maker (an ironic twist in the story seeing that the job of leather making made one unclean), God put him in a trance and showed him a sheet full of unclean animals.  When God told him to rise and eat, Peter responded out of his upbringing and faithfulness to Old Testament Law. “Never,” he said. “I have not eaten anything unclean and I won’t start now.”  But God’s response is what changes things.  God told him to never call anything unclean, or common, that he has called clean.

At that moment an envoy from Cornelius shows up at the house where Peter is staying and asks him to come.  God told Cornelius to send for Peter.  God told Peter to go. God was up to something big.  As soon as Peter enters the house of the Roman Centurion something strikes him as so important he repeats the topic twice in a short span of time. He says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me” (Acts 10:28-29). And then, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).

Peter was raised to show a harsh partiality.  He was raised with a strict “us vs. them” ethic and now God was teaching him something very different.  He was taught to see people like Cornelius as beneath the honor of his presence and on this day Peter brings a whole group of Jewish Christians into his house to fellowship, eat with him, and talk about Jesus.  Peter came face to face that day with a truth woven into the bones of the Christian faith: no human being is unclean.  Every human being is of inestimable value. Every human being is worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  No human being is beneath a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The logic is clear – no human being is beneath Jesus Christ, the God who emptied himself and became flesh. Thus, no human being is “less than” any other human being, and certainly not “less than” a follower of Jesus Christ. And every human life can become something that glorifies its Savior, Jesus Christ.

And why is it no human is beneath another in the eyes of God? It is by virtue of our creation in the image of God, and, as God told Peter, God has called every human clean. In other words, our status measured in earthly or ethnic terms does not determine our worth. The creation and decision of God does. No human lacks the image of God. No human is unclean.

One of the radical beliefs a Christian carries into this world is that God does not show partiality.  For all of its bluster about equality and human rights, our culture loves to decide who is and who is not worthy of life and privilege.  Our culture loves building ladders out of people. The abortion rate for children diagnosed with Down Syndrome is 94%. In a now infamous study, the abortion rate for African-American children in the city of Manhattan is over 80%. Children are still sold as slaves on the streets of Western, advanced cities. Political schemes rely on dividing people into groups that suspect and hate each other. Politicians have become wealthy beyond reason stoking those fires. And we all know the story goes on, and on.

But the Christian belongs to another God, a different kind of God. One who does not show partiality. God does not draw distinctions between people, calling one better than another.  And thus, by the grace and strength of God, neither do we.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Weddings: A Reflection

As a pastor I have the privilege of performing all kinds of weddings for all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.  This afternoon Heather and I sat at a reception table watching all the first dances, and a few things began to dawn on me. A wedding – the formal act of a man and woman dedicating themselves to each other – in whatever form it happens has been common among humans across all cultures since the dawn of, well, humanity. It brings families from every possible background together in the same room as they celebrate the union of two lives.

Weddings build new things while extending the reach of the oldest things. A new family is made while the deep roots of old families push life into new limbs.

Weddings represent, maybe more often than we know, the hope of reclamation. Where the past has been imperfect, maybe deeply imperfect, there is the real chance of something healthy and stable being built. If the new home continues the dysfunction of the old ones, hope waits one more generation. Where the new home is dedicated to ways that build souls and love God, the cycle of pain can be broken.

Weddings are inescapably between a man and a woman. The two getting married came from the union of two other sets of men and women and they will likely build their family in the way their natures determine. Every other option available to us is either a technological marvel or a societal novelty, but they all are thin shadows of how humans have built families for millennia. None of them replace the nature God has given us all.

Research and, more importantly, theology and history are on the side of men and women getting married and building families. Children need moms and dads.  Men need women and women need men. Kids thrive with grandparents. Families can be beautiful for their sheer expanse and life shaping in their extended intimacy.

Those who seek to expand and change the definition of marriage are in the smallest minority possible.  They not only find themselves in the minority now, they find themselves swimming against the tide of all human experience. All their ancestors are against them. Every example against man and woman marriage is the epitome of the anecdote – it only proves how universal the rule is.

And most importantly weddings are how God shows his absolute joy in humanity. He began the institution. Jesus made really good wine at one. It predates every other human organization and is thus more important than them all. It is how God encourages us to make more of us, and in this he delights. God loves that new human smell.

God created us to not only be together, but to be together for the expanse of our earthly lives. In that commitment we find stability, hope, and joy. Sexual promiscuity is soul soiling. One of the great testimonies one human can leave to another is life-long commitment to their spouse through all kinds of thick and thin.

And in them God is able to show how his love for us works.  There is emotion, heart-felt connection and even romance.  But over the long run there is love. This love is truly what love is. You can tell who and what you love by what you have committed yourself to over the long-haul.  You can tell by your sacrifices. You can tell by why you endure what you endure. This is often myself, but it can be, and ought to be, the one you married. And when there is this kind of love we begin to glimpse the love God has for people he created. People he adores and put his image in. People he sent his Son to live among and die for. Broken people he reaches out to over and over.

Weddings bear the promise of God’s love among us.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Responding to Cultural Change

In light of cultural shifts like the derecognizing of InterVarsity Campus Ministries by Cal State, I
think it is crucial that Christians in the American and Western world give serious thought to their place in a shifting landscape. The recent events with IV are only the latest in what could be a long list of cultural changes going on around and underneath us.  But as one wise man once told me, I am a Christian, therefore I have hope.

These changes are not reasons to grow angry or defensive, but become new and potentially powerful opportunities for Christians to follow Christ with more clarity than before and for the Church to rise up and be the difference it is supposed to be.  I think it is entirely possible that the American church has relied on its cultural position of strength for too long and has thus been caught a bit off its guard as the cultural shift away from Christian values picks up steam. So, to begin with, we need to rethink our relationships with cultural power structures.

This is a massive issue and one that I think deserves a lot of attention, so here are two very quick thoughts.

Christians and Cultural Power
In the past 35 years, conservative Christians have been very active in politics, creating what might be the most influential political movement in that time.  The hope was that movements like the Moral Majority would produce the kind of change in the halls of power that would preserve Christian values and act as a kind of influence on the rest of it.  Its actual effects are debatable.  However, at the same time we have sorely neglected other places of power that turn out to be far more influential than the evangelical world once believed.

The halls of education, from Pre-K to Doctoral Programs, are the cultural canaries of our time.  Do you want to know what lawyers, journalists, and movie producers will be thinking 10-20 years from now?  Take a look at their college curriculum and professors today.

The art world has become a bit of a joke to everyone but those buried within it, in large part because of the loss of transcendent values and the belief in anything beyond this world and immediate experience.  This part of our culture is more influential than many would expect, and needs a re-injection of the beliefs and values that made Western Art beautiful centuries ago.

Whether or not the Christian knows it, within their belief system is the understanding that the Kingdom of God is the most powerful kingdom on earth right now.  That deserves a little explanation.  Most Christians, by virtue of their cultural sensitivities, are under the impression that the things this world calls power are real or actual power. There is no doubt that guns and economic policies wield a certain kind of power in the world, but every time they wield themselves against the Church, the Church wins. The Church, when appropriately dislodged from state powers, does not enforce itself through guns and money.  Yet, when the guns and money of this world are turned against the Church, the state loses every time. How can this happen?

The Church has access to God’s kind of power and when it wields it well, nothing overcomes it. Christians need to learn to have their vision of power changed in order to comprehend and live in the kind of power given to them by God.  Jesus’ disciples once asked him if it was time to restore the kingdom to Israel.  This was a question about earthly power, and full of their expectation that Jesus’ power was of that kind.  His answer is essentially, “God will decide when that kind of power will be unleashed. You will receive power, but not that kind of power.”  He actually said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).  They received plenty of power, but none of them filled the halls of government.

Christians and churches will need to readjust their vision of culture and their role within in it while all the props we were accustomed to are pulled out from underneath us. This is not time for panic, but for renewed focus on discipleship and the Kingdom of God among us.

When Non-Discrimination is Discrimination

Recently the Cal State University system derecognized InterVarsity as an official campus organization.  According to their non-discrimination policy, IV would be required to allow and/or have non-Christians in their leadership and IV has refused to sign the appropriate documentation.  As a result IV, and other Christian campus organizations such as Chi Alpha, no longer have free access to campus rooms and resources and are not recognized as official campus clubs.  According to the way the Cal State system has enforced its non-discrimination policies, other campus organizations such as Greek, academic, and sports clubs, are still allowed to discriminate along lines pertinent to their mission and membership.

All of this is, of course, in the name of non-discrimination.  Ironic, isn’t it, that a Non-Discrimination policy has created some very targeted exclusion from the public square.  With a case like this what we have is pretty naked discrimination masking itself as non-discrimination.

Non-Discrimination policies are allegedly intended to keep organizations from unfairly choosing against people, likely for bad or ad hominem reasons.  In their simpler forms they are intended to keep people from having their feelings hurt for not being able to be a part of some group.  What the Cal State policy has done is discriminate against Christian organizations and exclude them from the fraternity of campus organizations.  And many foresee that if this policy is carried to its logical extreme, most all campus organizations will be similarly affected.

In addition, the philosophy behind the non-discrimination policy is far from neutral or valueless.  It may be assumed that these policies, given their name and all, do not impose a set of social values but instead keep other, badder, people from imposing theirs.  However, just a few moments of reflection tell a different story.  The belief that Christian campus groups MUST have or allow non-Christians to run their organizations, is a value – a belief about the moral rightness or wrongness of an idea.  The value may be simply stated something like, “on a diverse campus, it is better for Christian organizations to be forced to admit non-Christian leaders than to allow them to have their way and not allow them.”  That is a value statement.  And it has been effectively imposed in a coercive way. 

I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot safer.

As a side note, many public college campuses are quickly becoming the least likely places to hear or be able to express opinions that do not cohere with the reigning conventional wisdom.  More irony, indeed.

In the end, these non-discrimination policies have done nothing but impose anti-Christian values on Christians and in public arenas for a lot of transparent and illogical reasons.  So be it.  I think the real question is something like, “Now what?”

Next, let us wrestle with exactly that.