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Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Advent of A Son

Advent is a time of anticipation. We spend several weeks waiting and longing for that Christmas day when we celebrate the incarnation. During Advent, we do our best to live as fully as possible into the hopeful and yearning spirit that we imagine the people of God had before the arrival of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. 

Pastors preach about the coming of a child and all the anticipation that comes with birth. We sing festive songs about how all creation has need and groans for a messiah. Volunteers spend hundreds of hours building programs of all sorts to help us be intentional about looking forward to the Christ child. 

I’m about to become a father with my first child. We’re currently expecting a delivery to occur around Christmas. If ever there were a time to understand the depths and richness of Advent you would think it’s right now as I await the coming birth of my own son. After all, I’m actually living in Advent. 

You had told me this is the opportunity I’d receive then I’d also think I’d become a pro at anticipating Jesus and celebrating Advent. I mean, why wouldn’t God use the experience to make me a super-Christian? Right?

Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.

In fact, the biggest thing I’m grasping is the knowledge that I’m actually pretty terrible at anticipation. I’m down right wretched at Advent.  Sadly, when it comes to standing in awe at a coming miracle, I constantly get distracted.

I’ve spent a lot of time buying baby things like car seats, clothes, diapers, books, toys, monitors, and more. I’ve been reading on what to expect while I’m expecting. I go to doctor appointments and put ultrasound pictures in frames on my desk at work. I’m doing a lot to prepare for this little guy. 

Yet, for all my preparations I continually find myself thinking about myself. In my attempt to anticipate my son I actually lose sight of him and become focused on myself. I wonder what kind of father I will be, what kind of husband I’m currently being, how I’ll pay the bills, how my Father raised me, what I need to improve on, what I lack, what I don’t have, what I can’t do, and so on. I try to get my life in order so I can better order myself around my son but that’s not really working out. 

Funny enough, I’m realizing that when we orient ourselves around the Son we begin to find our life being put in order as he transforms us. We spend time and money on church programs, preach anticipation, sing songs of longing for a messiah, and yet in all of our preparations and busyness we often lose sight of Jesus and the miracle of his incarnation to the point where we are glad the trouble of Advent is behind us and we never rightly sat in the presence of the Christ child. We do so much to ensure we seek Jesus but end up blinding ourselves to him in those efforts. 

The closer I am to meeting my son the more I realize I simply want to be in his presence. I don’t want to miss a moment. I don’t want to look in the mirror more than his face and I don’t want to worry about my life more than I give thanks for his. Then I realize that I’m learning a lot about anticipation. Yeah, I’m bad at it, but we all are. It’s not our efforts at improving our ability to anticipate that will bring us closer to Jesus. It is Jesus’ very coming that will draw us near to him. 

I’m drawn closer to my son by his arrival not by my preparations or self-evaluations. In his arrival I’m brought to my knees and to the awe-filled gratefulness that I couldn’t muster with all my time and money. In the same way, Jesus, the Son of God,  draws us all close to him by simply arriving. We’ve never been able to muster the ability through programs, songs, or sermons to truly be with Jesus. It has only ever been by his work that we’ve been brought near and transformed. Only through Jesus’ work do I finally see my self-obsession, my preoccupations, and my shortcomings. Only in Jesus is all that also made right.

Preparations and self evaluations are wonderful but I’m finding that there comes a time to simply be still, unafraid, and in a posture of receiving so that I might truly experience the incarnation by being present with Jesus. I’ve always failed at Advent despite my intentions and efforts and Jesus has never failed at Advent despite our intentions and efforts. It is there that I rest for it is in this truth that I can trust Jesus to show up in my life just as I can trust him with preparing me for meeting my son Wesley. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Debate That Will Make You Change Your Political Allegiance

During the election season it seems that debate is the most popular activity. Politicians are doing it to get into office, friends are doing it online, and enemies are being created by the minute. Politics hit a sensitive spot for many people, and rightfully so. Our politics are important. For the Christian, the way we engage in worldly politics is a matter of much debate. However, the debate hasn't always been between Christian brothers and sisters. It used to be more often between Christians and those of other beliefs.

There was an early Church Father from Alexandria named Origen (184-254 AD). He is one of the most influential theologians in church history and he was considered an expert at textual criticism, biblical interpretation, and philosophical theology. He once entered into a debate with a Greek philosopher named Celsus.  One of the matters they debated dealt with politics and how Christians ought to engage in the political realm of this world. Here is a portion of that debate:
Celsus urges us “to help the king with all our might, and to work with him in the preservation of justice, to fight for him; and if he requires it, to fight under him, or lead an army along with him.” We reply to this saying that we do give help to kings. We give, so to speak, a divine help by “putting on the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:11). We do this in obedience to the command of the apostle Paul, “I exhort, therefore, that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority” (1 Ti. 2:1-2). The more someone excels in piety, the more effective help he provides to kings. Yes, it is even more help than that which is given by soldiers, who go forth to fight and kill as many of the enemy as they can. 
And since we by our prayers conquer all demons who stir up war, lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. In this way we do take our part in public affairs, when along with righteous prayers we practice self-denial and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures and not to be led away by them. And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army—an army of piety—by offering our prayers to God. 
Celsus also urges us to “take office in the government of the country, if that is required for the maintenance of the laws and the support of religion.” But we recognize in each kingdom the existence of another kingdom, founded by the Word of God, and we exhort those who are mighty in word and of blameless life to guide churches [instead of a civil office—ed.]. We reject those who are ambitious of ruling; rather in the church of God we constrain those who because of much modesty have little desire to take a public office. And those who rule over us well are under the constraining influence of the great King, whom we believe to be the Son of God, God the Word. And if those who govern in the church and are called rulers of the divine nation—that is, the church—rule well, they rule in accordance with the divine commands, and never allow themselves to be led astray by worldly politics. 
It is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a diviner and more necessary service in the church of God—for the salvation of men. And this service is both necessary and right.
Christians in the U.S. might read this and say that the political atmosphere is so different from the time of these men that their debate has little application for us but I'd challenge us to consider Origen's claims as timeless and incredibly relevant. Origen is attempting to alter the perception of what "works" in this world and who rules over the reality we live in. 

For Christians, we say God, through Christ, rules the world and Origen suggests that we invest in that heavenly kingdom and allow that investment to be the way in which we politically engage the world. Not because we are fleeing the world and her politics but because that's the only true way to engage the world and her politics in a way that draws the world into the peace of God. It is God alone who heals the nations and give us hope. No president, senator, or legislation will do for us what God can do.

As you debate and engage in political activity this election season, I encourage you to consider the words of Origen and seek God's will for how to be faithful in this political haze. Invest in God's kingdom by seeking to pray, sing, and read scripture more than you watch political ads, discuss voting, or read articles about legislation. Give more of yourself to God's kingdom than the worldly one you reside in.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

In the World (Wide Web) But Not of It

The internet. It’s amazing. Right? It allows us to communicate from far away at historically fast speeds. It makes research, study, and learning easier and more accessible to the masses than ever before. It made us realize that cute cat videos can consume our entire day if we let them. We can all find things we love about the internet.

At the same time, if we are honest, we all hate aspects of the internet. While social media hubs like twitter, tumblr, and facebook offer some of these great things they also introduce a tremendous amount of poisonous material into our daily lives.

I have days where I look through my Facebook feed and all I seem to see is gossip, fear, and narcissism. No matter the demographic of my friends, all I ever seem to see is self-obsession, shallow complaints, propaganda, polarized news stories, celebrity gossip, and other posts that makes me want to throw my computer out the window.

Just now I looked through my feed and saw an article from a popular news site demonizing Obama, a facebook quiz to determine which car my friend ought to drive, an update on football players who tipped a waitress with money they wipes in feces,  a buzzfeed post about the struggles of a week without makeup (followed by 3 satire interviews mocking it), a college friend’s status declaring their deletion of a friend, a blog bashing a family company, a complaint about democrats trying to tax Americans out of their homes, 15 sassy comebacks you have to admit are pretty good, a post talking about Nicki Minaj’s posterior, and of course a dozen advertisements for things I don’t need and can’t afford.

How we 'post', 'retweet', 'like', 'share' and 'surf' is an ethical matter and we must be intentional about it if we desire to truly be the salt and light of the world (wide web) that Jesus said we would be.

So what is a good Christian to do about the new watering hole of society known as social media? How do we traverse this online culture and noise? Assuming that we will be intentional, I see three options.
  1. Christians make their own internet sites so they don’t have to visit ones that are filled with gossip, narcissism, materialistic advertisements, and promotions of fear.
  2. Christians sign off the internet and move away from the online culture that so easily disrupts the shalom (holistic peace) of daily life.
  3. Christians learn how to be online in an intentionally alternative manner that keeps them connected to everyone else.

The first two options are what are often called “sectarianism.” This is when we separate ourselves and focus inward to a point that we lose touch with others who are different from us or who are not in our sect/group. Jesus never calls his followers away from the main culture. He promotes times of solitude and times of fellowship with brothers and sisters of faith but he never promotes the abandonment of the “secular” spaces in our world. In fact, Jesus opens our eyes to see that the sacred/secular divides we often see are an illusion. God doesn’t live in temples or churches and Jesus hangs out with the dirty sinners (which is good news for all of us sinners). Everything on earth belongs to God, is culture any different? Is the internet any different?

The problem with the first option is that the advertisements, gossip, fear, and narcissism all find their way into the Christian version of popular social media hubs. Why? Because people are people, even when they are Christians. Sectarianism leads us to gossip about other sects, fear other sects, and be obsessed with our own sect. Beyond this, if we create knock-off versions of the “secular” cultural hubs then we dismiss the good talents and works of those whom God loves and has called us to love. It’s essentially saying “We recognize that something good exists but because it’s not perfect or ‘Christian’ (as we define the term) we’re going to create our own lesser version to appease our sectarian guilt.” A sectarian response to the morally compromised culture of the internet actually produces the very thing it seeks to reject and avoid. The attempt to escape gossip, fear, and narcissism actually ends up cultivating all three. This approach simply doesn't work. We can't baptize the internet.

Not only does this sectarian response produce what it seeks to reject but it also rejects the goodness that already exists within the product being rejected. As stated at the opening of this article, the internet is comprised of nuance and to operate in a way that denies this truth and opts for a fictional black and white view of reality is to deny the reality that God has placed us in. 

The second option is equally as problematic since it dismisses the neighbor. More than that, it runs from the neighbor. This is a flight response that throws the baby out with the bathwater. The logic goes like this: A) Because there is bad stuff on social media + B) and social media is a big part of the internet + C) and we need to stay “pure” and avoid that bad stuff = D) we should reject the internet. There are some great reasons to reject the internet in our daily lives but when we operate under this premise we still welcome fear into our lives. It’s akin to a young boy locking himself in his room in order to avoid the girls who have yucky cooties. In order to avoid sin we end up avoiding those we should socially embrace. It is anti-biblical to avoid those who are imperfect simply because we don't want to be associated with sin.

Holiness (meaning to be set apart for a godly purpose) is important and we should seek to be pure from sin and evil. So how do we remain pure, seek holiness, and embrace the nuance of internet culture? How we do be in the world (wide web) but not of it?

Option three. We learn how to be online in an intentionally alternative manner that keeps them connected to everyone else. We do this in both our approach to the social media and our navigation of it. 

In our approach we remember that everything we and others post is an outworking of what is within our hearts. What we post, share, etc. is an expression of who we truly are (like it or not).  Online life is actually pretty similar to offline life in many respects. We may feel braver online or consider it to be less personal but whatever we put on the internet is a product of our heart, of our person. Just like our offline lives, the internet is filled with goodness and filth. Nuance reigns supreme online and even though we have the options to change our 'preferences' and 'settings' so that we see only what we want to see, it may be more beneficial to accept all of what people give us, even if it isn't what we prefer. Along with that, we reject the notion that people are less human when online and we accept that they are created in the image of God and deserve our love, respect, and service.

A way we navigate the internet alternatively is to treat our online lives the same as our offline lives. We must try to do this because whether we are online or offline we are living our real life. The two seemingly separate lives actually belong to a singular and unified life of one person. My online life is actually a part of my reality, just like my offline life.

So what do we do about the bad stuff and good stuff? How do we 'post', 'retweet', 'like', 'share' and 'surf' in a holy, pure, and honest way as Christians who know that our online activity should match our offline activity? Below are some suggestions.
  1. Look beyond the posts and see the people. If the posts are discouraging you from seeing the person with mercy and you find yourself demonizing and dismissing the person then strike up a conversation to help you better see that they are image bearers of God.
  2. Treat people online the way you’d want to be treated (both online and offline). Don't talk behind people's backs or interact in ways that are convenient for only yourself.
  3. Only pursue the things that will uplift/encourage/challenge/unifyDon’t read or 'share' the gossip articles.(Please don’t mistake this for positivity self-help. Invest in the heartbreaking posts but don't give time to things that destroy)
  4. When you want to share something first ask yourself “Is this honest?” “Is this helpful?” “Is this loving?” “Is this damaging?” "Would Jesus be pleased with this?" If it still feels good then post away. Otherwise, let it get lost in cyberspace.
  5. Remember, even though the internet may make it seem so, the truth is that it isn’t about you. It's unhealthy to see our own picture and words as often as we do. It keeps us from focusing on others.

This discussion is much bigger than this post and the ways we must change are greater in number than my suggestions. My hope is that this is a springboard for improving the way we view the internet and how we interact online. Perhaps we won’t see advertisements decrease or our feeds become more pleasing but we’ll have more peace and we’ll extend that peace to others both in their feeds and when we meet them offline. I hope this drop in the bucket helps your thirst.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Christian or American?

Life is busy and we have a lot to think about. We don't always think too deeply about how we talk about ourselves. This means we probably don't give much attention to the way in which we are defining ourselves as people. Whenever we talk about ourselves we are putting in an effort to define ourselves both in our own minds and the minds of others. This means that the way we talk about ourselves is incredibly important.

I was recently reading a discussion between some Christian friend's about the situation regarding the U.S. military and ISIS. One of the people mentioned what Obama was doing with "our military" and it got me thinking about identity. That thinking turned into the following thread of tweets:

The contexts God has given to us are wonderful gifts. It's good to remember that the Apostle Paul  used his Roman citizenship and Jewish ethnicity when it helped his cause of doing the work of God's kingdom. We know that it is acceptable to embrace many labels in this life.

I'm an American but far beyond, before, and above that I am a Christian and nothing defines me more than my relationship to God through Christ as a citizen of his heavenly kingdom. I'm his ambassador on this earth (2 Corinthians 5:20). Wherever I live, wherever I go I am representing my home country of heaven and the will of God which is my primary culture. 

If I am to be primarily defined by an allegiance or political tie then it must not be to a man-made organization but to King Jesus and His kingdom. Most accurately stated, I'm a Christian living in the United States of America. I'm a citizen of this country and I love a lot about it but it has no hold on me.

My main point is that we must allow ourselves to be primarily defined by our relationship to God and His kingdom and not any man or his nation. In doing this we become capable of better loving and serving whatever nation we are most connected to on earth and are able to transcend man-made social borders that draw people into an Us vs. Them mentality which endangers our commitment to Jesus.

One small way we can begin to become more intentional about allowing ourselves to be defined more by our relationship to God through Christ and less by the country we live in is to pay attention to what we are saying whenever we say "we" or "our", especially when engaging in political discussion. In other words, when we talk about ourselves who are we talking about?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Why 'God Bless America' Is Problematic

If you're a citizen of the United States then you are familiar with the national songs that permeate our culture. We sing national anthems and songs like God Bless America before sporting events and major public spectacles. These songs are a big part of the nation's identity. We rarely think of this sort of action as religious but I am persuaded that songs like God Bless America are actually highly religious and a part of a national(istic) liturgy that promotes the civil religion (which is not true Christianity).

At the risk of being labelled "anti-American", I also believe we are often as idolatrous with the United States as the Romans were with Caesar. I also believe Jesus calls us away from this idolatry. Proving this thesis would take far more than a blog and some good men have already done this* so I will keep a limited focus here.

As the Church has creeds, hymns, symbols and sacraments such as baptism and the Eucharist so nations have defining practices and proclamations such as constitutions, anthems, flags, and pledges. I'd like to focus on the possible problems with Christians participatin in the song God Bless America

Did you know that the classic song is actually a prayer and that the first half of the song is rarely present when we sing it at events? Below is the full set of lyrics as written and edited by Irving Berlin in 1918/1938. 
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.
God bless America,
Land that I love,
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home
God bless America, My home sweet home.
It begins by inviting us into a "solemn prayer." Prayer is good. Christians pray. That's not problematic. The problem arises when we are to pray as we pair it with an allegiance to the United States (or any single group of people). The author has done precisely this. This song is a prayer for those who have sworn an allegiance to a group known as the United States. 

Of course, this only seems problematic when we understand that swearing an allegiance to a single group of people is problematic for the Christian. This type of oath or allegiance promotes an unbiblical Us v. Them mentality. If the United States has my allegiance then Russia, China, Mexico, Canada, Iraq (and the people belonging to those nations) do not. That means that I've chosen one group of people over another (both of which have Christians in them). This also means that I've decided that I belong mores to a people defined by borders, wars, flags, and politics than to people defined by Jesus and his kingdom. In most wars you can find Christians killing Christians (who are commanded by Jesus to love one another) simply because one political authority has disagreements with another, for whatever reason. Any time we give ourselves to a man-made kingdom (which the U.S. absolutely is) then we forsake the Kingdom of God. 2 Samuel 8 provides a picture of God's heart for his people to be under his rule and not under man's rule.

Jesus shows up on earth and calls himself Lord. This is a title belonging to Caesar. Jesus' gospel (or "good news") is a political statement that declares himself as the true ruler, the true Son of God that demands our allegiance. The Peace of Rome doesn't hold a flame to the Prince of Peace. Jesus ran a political campaign against Caesar that didn't look like any other political campaign because his heavenly kingdom doesn't look like any earthly kingdom. He wants our allegiance to his kingdom and his politic which says "love your neighbor" and "love your enemy." Jesus' politic is inclusive, not exclusive. Jesus' kingdom wars against the powers and principalities (which include the political authorities of this world) and calls us out of them. This is why we are to be considered foreigners wherever we live on earth. The United States is not our homeland because God's kingdom is our homeland and it is that homeland that determines our identity and conduct. After all, we operate under the rule of our King, Jesus.

So, God Bless America demands that we, as those who have pledged our allegiance to the United States, offer a deeply sincere prayer. We now see that this prayer is rooted in nationalism and favoritism for our own kingdom/nation (over and above others). What is that prayer specifically?

God, bless America, the kingdom that I love.

This asks God to join us in our favoritism.** This is us asking God to bless the kingdom that we are most fond of, the nation that we have pledged ourselves to (over his kingdom). Any time we ask God to join us in our kingdom instead of joining him in his kingdom we take a serious misstep. But this is an easy move to make. How often do we desire for God to accept our agenda? All the time! In all avenues of life we neglect God's already present agenda for our own. Nations/kingdoms are no different. Here, in this prayer, we ask God to join our agenda. 

We are attempting to enlist God into our own earthly kingdom's cause. Doesn't that seem backwards? He has already called us to enlist into his heavenly kingdom through Jesus! He came calling us to repent because Christ Jesus is Lord! Yet here we stand, saying "No, you come over here!" Be assured, he won't (because a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand and thus Jesus stay in his God's kingdom and doesn't exchange it for submission to other powers/kingdoms/authorities).

Granted, the prayer doesn't only ask God to stand beside America (supporting her causes) but to guide her. Now, that's worth getting behind! Right? God should guide us. However, with the foundation that has been laid it's clear that we are asking God to guide us on our own terms. We want him to guide us as an enlisted member of our kingdom so that our causes (not his) would prosper under his infinite wisdom. He's our muscle not our master.

We want God to guide us through our troubles, "the night." However, while God promises to give those who love him the strength to endure all sufferings, we're essentially asking for God to protect us as we pursue our own agenda and not his. In doing this we follow in the idolatrous steps of Emperor Constantine.*** That's not submitting to God, it's using God. This is not a plea for true guidance because true guidance demands allegiance to God's kingdom and submission to his will. As it is, we're not seeking to serve God as a people but rather asking God to serve us and our own national will. That's backwards and it is wrong.

The prayer ends with the petition for God to bless our kingdom which we declare to be our "home, sweet home." The earliest version of the prayer featured the wording "Our own sweet home", once again showcasing the favoritism of the prayer. As stated earlier, for the Christian, no earthly land is ever to be considered a true home, let alone a home worthy of our sworn allegiance because our home is God's kingdom.  This is why Jesus has prepared a place for us at his Father's house (John 14:1-3). We are sojourners, aliens, strangers, foreigners, refugees. The early church proclaims this truth and we should have ears to hear it. Most problematic is that the United States, even if claimed to be our home, is not God's home and it is precisely his home to which we are to belong. God does not belong to the U.S. Rather, the earth and all that is in it belongs to God (Psalm 24:1)!

To be clear, I find it very good to love where you live, to desire truly good things for the people you live around, and for the nation surrounding you to honor God and live out his justice (this is why we pray for our national authorities). I write this in attempt to continue searching for what an appropriate patriotism looks like for Christians. Understanding what it looks like for us to appropriately relate to earthly kingdoms can be difficult and it's a hard discuss an that is worth having. 

Stanley Hauerwas states, " America, Christians just cannot distinguish themselves - what is means to be Christian, they assume it goes hand in hand with what it means to be an American. And that's just a deep mistake." In other words, the problem many American Christians face is that they are American before they are Christian. This is the nationalistic idolatry that we must guard ourselves against. He also wisely states that, "[the truth and declaration that] 'Jesus is Lord' is going to make my life quite dysfunctional in relationship to a good deal of American practice." Jesus disrupts our lives if we sincerely seek and obey him. Our national identities and practices are no exception to this. 

What does this mean for us? It means we must wrestle out our salvation with fear and trembling, begging God to find any wicked way within us and to purge us of it and forgive us as we repent and begin to learn how to live in a land without giving it more than it is due so that we might fully give ourselves to Christ and his kingdom. 

*A few books that I have found to address this issue in a reasonable and biblical manner are Myth of A Christian Nation by Gregory Boyd, Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne, A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd, and The Myth of Religious Violence by William Cavanaugh (I've listed these in the order that they began to influence me and in the order that I think is easiest to accept the material within them)
**In 1834 Robert Montgomery Bird wrote a song with the same title (God Bless America!) that is equally, if not more, obvious in it's nationalistic favoritism claiming that "the only prayer we know" is God bless America... Forever! 
***Emperor Constantine was the first ruling authority to become a Christian (312 A.D.). After his Baptism, the church went from being the oppressed few to the powerful many. He believed God was guiding his warfare and favored Christianity to the point of persecuting people of other religions in Christ's name. Constantine didn't come into the service of God but rather brought God's name into his own service.