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Friday, January 16, 2015

Leave Heaven Alone

A book was published detailing the experience of a young boy who went to heaven a few years back. More recently, reports have come out that show the young man who originally told this story made the whole thing up (though he shouldn't be held fully responsible due to the co-authoring of the father). For some, this is more proof of the falsehood of scripture's testimony and the charlatan nature of many Christians. For others it is a heartbreaking betrayal that disrupts their view of God's eternal will for humanity. It screws things up and makes a real mess.
Books like The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven or Heaven Is For Real (which now has it's own movie) are problematic for me as a Christian. I have trouble endorsing them, to be honest. I struggle with these types of books and movies because it is turning a profit on the (supposed) work of God and that is frowned upon in scripture. Beyond that, it goes against the example we have in scripture of those who follow Christ and lead the Church. The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Church in Corinth and at one point in the letter he talks about his inability to boast in himself but that he'd champion the stories of others and he'd boast in the work of God alone. He says, "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter" (1 Corinthians 12:2-4).
What I like about Paul's words is that he believes the story but doesn't elaborate on it. He says "God knows." In other words, the details belong to God, not me. Paul can't speak to it. After all, man could not utter such things.
If we continue to read Paul's words he goes on to say he will boast on behalf of this man (without details) but he will not boast in himself except in his weakness. For Paul, it is not foolish to boast about truthful things but it is not good to boast if these boastings of truthful things bring about people thinking too highly of himself. He wants to guard against being conceited. It is here that Paul speaks of a messenger of Satan that was sent to harass him and keep him from becoming conceited. He pleads with God three times for this "thorn" to leave him but God says "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
For this reason, Paul is "content in weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities." This is where Paul concludes his meditation. He leaves behind the talk of experiencing heaven and focuses on the hardship. That seems like poor marketing for the kingdom of heaven but it's what Paul does. The Apostle spends far more time in his letters speaking of weakness and sufferings that have come his way as a result of being faithful to Jesus than writing of the awesome, miraculous, heavenly type experiences. Does he affirm these good things? Absolutely! Does he preach the Good News and fill his letters with the greatest beauty in creation? Of course! However, in this passage and in his letters we see that Paul is wary of the stories that bring fame, conceit, and power. He would rather share about suffering. Prophets over profits.
So when people publish books and make movies detailing their story of experiencing heaven, I dismiss it to some degree. Perhaps the story is true. I believe God can do that with people. I don't immediately doubt the story but I don't concern myself with the publications because I want to leave those words to God. I don't know or need the details. Paul doesn't think it's worth focusing on so why should we? How much good comes from it? Paul worries about the inflation it brings to our egos. It doesn't help us to be content in weakness. It's a danger to our being content in God's grace which allows suffering. This feels backwards. Heaven seems like a great motivator to believe in God. Shouldn't we be pushing these stories? Paul doesn't think so. Jesus didn't operate that way. He chose a cross over a throne. He left heaven to be laid in the earth, to become dirty. That's where his glory is found. I'll let God know the details and I'll boast in him but at the end of the day, man can not utter these things so how can we publish them? Let us instead concern ourselves more with sufferings and boast of how God's power is made perfect in weakness. Charlatans will always exist. This story proves that. Let us not allow this to distract us from the true stories of God, the stories of him showing up in weakness, of showing grace where it looks invisible. Let us be unafraid of being humbled and in the dirt for it is in the dirt where glory lives.

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?