Monday, March 23, 2015

What I See As A Pastor

I had a chance to show someone today "what I see" when I look over a congregation as a pastor.

A young man has been walking to church for a few weeks and he stopped by today in bad shape. Life is hard for him and he is baffled about where God is and whether he is paying any attention. A couple of us had a chance to talk with him and pray with him, but I have to tell you, these conversations are often very hard to get through. It is a common truth that life is often very hard, and most every Christian will experience seasons when they believe God is absent, and despair.

At one point he mentioned what he sees when he walks in the doors of our church. He sees people with smiling faces and happy children. He sees people who love God. He sees people raising their hands in worship. He sees people who feel the presence of God, and he keeps coming back because he feels the presence of God here as well. He wants what they have.

So I took him into the sanctuary, we walked down to the front, turned around, and I showed him a little of what I see every Sunday. I also see people happy to be with the family of God and who worship with all they have each week. I also see beautiful families, and I revel in the sounds of children racing through the halls, hugging their parents, and carrying around whatever craft they glued and colored that morning. I even get to hold a few of them.

I also see the saint who is twice widowed but who pours her life into her brothers and sisters in Christ. I see the families dealing with severe mental and physical disabilities who bring their kids and family members because worship soothes them. I see teens and young adults who have lost parents at an all too early age, but who come and find friendship and strength in church. I see blended families following God but who struggle with the rotten choices of their other family members. I see parents with wayward children who struggle in prayer constantly. I see single parents doing their dead-level best. And the story goes on, and on.

To my eyes, this is part of what makes church so beautiful. It isn't the perfection. It is more the quality of the mercy and grace of God alive in imperfect and hurting lives. It is the beauty of lumps of coal being turned into diamonds by the power of a loving and nail-scarred God. It is the cross leading to resurrection.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Disciple and Happiness

There is a line in Pride and Prejudice in which one sister tells another, and I am paraphrasing here, that she cannot have her happiness until she has her goodness.  Jane Austen is relying on a traditional sense of happiness (and goodness) to make her point that virtue is the path to true happiness. For a very long time philosophers and theologians believed that humans were made to be certain kinds of beings, namely rational and virtuous beings, and that we would not lead fulfilling lives until we began to function according to our created mandate. Thus, happiness was to be a consequence of reason and virtue. This idea, which reigned philosophy and culture for centuries, has fallen apart and been replaced with one form of hedonism or another. Happiness now is a factor of what makes us feel a particular emotion without any regard to virtue or the right training of character. In fact most people now find the idea, "the right training of character," to be odd or offensive.

But for the follower of Jesus Christ, we must return to a version of this traditional notion. Moreland and Issler say, "According to the ancients [Moses, Solomon, Jesus, Aristotle, Plato, and the church], happiness is a life well lived, a life of virtue and character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness, and goodness" (The Lost Virtue of Happiness, pg. 25, italics theirs). The way I want to put it here is that in the life of the believer happiness is the place where there is no tension between what gives God joy and what gives you joy.

For the Christian, maturity consists in the building of the life and character of God within us. As the Apostle Paul noted, we have been predestined to be conformed to the image of God's Son. This is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. It is a beautiful and powerful thing. It is a joyful thing. But it presupposes that we currently, or in our broken human condition, are not in the image of God (Romans 8:29). We must be transformed to get there. Thus, the things that give us joy or happiness now may need to change and the things that give God joy must replace them in the makeup of our character.

So, at the very least, the Christian needs to learn that they cannot accept happiness on hedonistic terms, or to settle for the kind of joy that comes with a broken and sinful nature. As C.S. Lewis said in another context, if we do those things we are happy with playing in the mud when the glories of heaven are available to us. The Christian is given the Word of God, the life of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and these become our guides in learning God's kind of happiness and joy, and they become the power of our transformation.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Toward a Public Christian Faith

It has become a common, if unexamined, belief that the only institutions that have anything to say about a culture’s common problems are politics, law, and higher education, especially the hard sciences. What this means is that when we are faced with common, large, problems we look to these institutions, people, and their respective ideologies to provide solutions. The problem is that none of them have any solutions worth any serious devotion.

The Christian, however, has at their disposal another resource that has answers to public problems. At the very least it provides a sound and valid foundation for understanding and addressing our common issues. But our culture has ruled it out of bounds for public discussion. The living Christ and Christian theology is the resource that exemplifies God’s wisdom and power among humans and which reveals truth to us. But people of faith, theologians, pastors, and churches have been relegated to the insignificant shadows of “private belief” or “opinion.” And not only has the outside world pushed the church and her theology out of the public square, the church has, in many respects, become content there.

To come “out of the shadows” and put forward a full-bodied public life the church must learn that she is a public institution with answers to our culture’s common problems. We need not subsume ourselves and our priorities to the other institutions listed above, and neither do we need to learn a triumphant posture over them. Instead, for the follower of Christ, all these vocations (and many, many more) become means of expressing our theology. If this is understood and practiced, the Christian need not seek a revised form of Constantinianism (because they no longer see politics as a surrogate savior), and the Christian need not separate their faith from the tasks that consume most of their waking hours (because their faith and their lives have become indistinguishable).

Part of what this means is that the church must learn to use the resources at her disposal to begin learning and teaching what it would mean to begin thinking about daily life with Christ. Christ is not a spiritual add-on, or the ideal who guides some of our moral decision making. Instead, he is the very manifestation of the Creator of all things, the smartest man who ever lived, and still alive filling his people with the power and wisdom of his kingdom. So, we don’t begin thinking about marriage, politics, law, education, computer programming, or custodial work with the presupposition that Christ is not concerned. On the contrary, if the Christian is doing it, Christ is deeply concerned and involved.

Does this mean we must develop a “Christian quantum physics,” a “Christian computer programming language,” or a “Christian” anything? Not necessarily. Instead, we ought to become people enamored with and filled with Christ and then go do our jobs, or relate to friends and family, or vote.

I wonder from time to time, what would it look like for the local church to become so robust a community founded on the truths and life of Christ that people find in her the resources they need to address life and all that comes with it?

Christians in this World

The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus was written in the late 2nd century by an unknown disciple, self-described as a "disciple of the apostles" to a Roman teacher who was likely the tutor to Marcus Aurelius. Though an ideal, it is a wonderful description of how Christians can approach their lives in this world - lives lived here but belonging to God.

For Christians are not distinguished from the
rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practise an extraordinary kind of life. Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other
arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their
own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvellous,
and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but only as
sojourners; they bear their share in all things as
citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers.
Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and
every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget
children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their
wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they
live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their
citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they
surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and they are persecuted by
all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned.
They are put to death, and yet they are endued with
life. They are in beggary, and yet they make many
rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they
abound in all things. They are dishonoured, and yet they are
glorified in their dishonour. They are evil spoken of,
and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are
insulted, and they respect. Doing good they are punished as evil-doers;
being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby
quickened by life. War is waged against them as aliens by the
Jews, and persecution is carried on against them by
the Greeks, and yet those that hate them cannot tell
the reason of their hostility.