Friday, January 20, 2012

Creating for Community


In the spirit of all the discussions on the Senate and House bills concerning internet censorship right now (SOPa and PIPA) I thought I'd share an idea I've been kicking around for some time now.

I've stated before that all artistic work, including literature, is grounded in edification. I believe everyone who creates does so not merely for self but for the entire surrounding community. Even if one creates with a motivation of creating anything for the self it inevitable affects the community and thus, in some sense, belongs to the community. Even if this is a cosmic truth it is not an inward motivation [to edify] for all producers. Hopefully, all of us create in order to make life more abundant, be it our own life, the lives of others, or our shared life. For Christians who think of others first and are greatly commanded by God to love the neighbor it is essential that we be able to give all we produce to one another for the sake of edification, even if it is a small thing that we produce.

From bakers and business women to pastors and artists, we are all using what God has provided us with to improve our lives. When it comes to Christians and their production I firmly believe we ought to adopt the perspective which sees all production as shared. I believe that we should pay wages to one another and give credit where it is due but I also believe that it is good to relinquish our intellectual properties and the desire to have greater power over our work than others for the sake of edification.

For example: Music artists can write a song and they are right to sell it on their album for an income. However, I believe they should also be willing to not require others to jump through copyright hoops to use it in worship services. Such activities of worship ought to be free for all people to use as far as permission goes. When I write I do so with the readiness to let others use my words verbatim without payment or citing because the message is more important than my monetary or reputable gain. However, if you'd like to pay me or give me credit I'll happily accept with thanksgiving. I would not like to be thieved but if I am then there is little I can do about it except hope the thief is confused by their actions and how it mixes with my words (a tip I gained from Wendell Berry). Though, it is hard to be stolen from when you count little to nothing as your own.

This, of course, is a broad look at a perspective that requires situational ethics to some degree. As I write this I am predominantly concerned with what has been created for the sake of liturgy, praise, and edification of the saints. Praise songs, Bible studies, artwork, sermons, and more ought to be considered the property of the congregation or community above the artist. Why? Because though it was the producer who manipulated the good creation around them and compiled the resources provided by Creator God it is a product made for the sake of the community. Thus, is belongs to the community. Medicine belongs to the sick more than the doctor. It comes from the doctor but it belongs to the sick for they are the ones in need of it, who will consume it and be blessed through it.

This leads to the notion that a community has the freedom to alter, add to, and take away from the product (an unwise move when concerning medicine of course). I believe this is to be embraced but only in love, honor, respect, and careful discernment. This, of course, can be very difficult and must be a very delicate endeavor if it is ever to happen. If possible, the producer ought to be involved in changes so that the true message and original intention can be communicated (just as a doctor should be able to help someone alter their medicines). A good example of this is David Crowder Band covering John Mark McMillan's song How He Loves Us.This is the most difficult aspect to nail done on this position I've adopted because the difficulty to alter good creations in a loving and beneficial way is so great. If we could learn to share our work first then that would be a good-sized first step.

If we want to sing a song of praise but change a few words for the reason of edification and it is a wise decision then we should be freed by the songwriter to do so. If we desire to share sermons we should be freed to do so. If we desire to display art we did not ourselves create but know it's value or if we desire to make it an element of a collage piece then we ought to be freed by the artist to do so. Again, this should not be something done at will but by discernment and permission. That can be a difficult balance to find but we can always find it together if we are willing.

I'm not trying to communicate that all ownership be given up by producers but rather that a humble ownership be embraced for it is only a humble creation that serves best and it is only in humbleness that the best creations are brought forth. We must acknowledge that it was God who made us able to produce and supplied all we needed to produce. We must admit that what we produce belongs first to God and second to the neighbor (otherwise we accept we use God's gifts to give to ourselves more than any other). This knowledge leads us to being able to humbly own what we create, giving license to our communities to join in the production and alteration of a good and tangible elementof worship. This humble ownership is an invitation to share worship, to commune, to unify. It is also an opportunity to see destruction as well should community members act out of selfishness but that's a risk we take when we are vulnerable with one another.

I firmly believe this type of humble ownership is a way that we might more deeply share all things with one another. The less conditions we put on our work the more trust we can put into those who receive and use it. I admire Derek Webb and his campaign with his Mockingbird album and how it has led to the NoiseTrade.com phenomenon. I am thankful to authors who let me post portions of their books without jumping through hoops. Because of the generosity shown to me through producers I am more grateful in my consumption and use. I am also more generous in my sharing. As a result, these producers are given more attention, appreciation, and often profit. They do not practice humble ownership for the sake of monetary or reputable gain but both find them as blessed reward. It is my prayer that we may all learn to do the same well. I also pray that I may find that balance and not be too liberal or too tight-gripped on anything I receive or produce.

Let us give gifts to one another whenever we produce, knowing that edification is more important than getting "what is ours" so that we may be with those who are ours. Let us create in a way that focuses on glorifying God and being united with one another in love. Let us embrace humbleness and worship as we engage in our creativity. Let us be generous with what we produce, valuing others over ourselves, trusting God to use our work well and to provide for us our daily bread.

May we create sacrificially so as to create works which become mosaics in time, blessing many with a diverse and ever-changing fingerprint which looks more like a people than a person. May we love one another in all we do, whether we are giving, receiving, changing, or sharing. May we honor God and neighbor in how we build the future and contribute to shared worship.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Christians & Politics

Many folks live by the philosophy that it's not proper or wise to discuss politics in public (my friend above does not actually prescribe to this idea). I have a few problems with the notion that Christians in particular ought to keep their political views to themselves or hidden from the public sphere (and let's face it, Facebook is the public sphere in a big way).

1. We are not meant to live compartmentalized lives. God never intended for us to be hidden from one another. When we give ourselves to others we give them our whole self. This doesn't mean we always have to expose everything we can to the person standing before us or write an exhaustive essay of our views online but it does mean that we don't need to hide certain aspects of what forms our worldview from one another, especially among fellow Christians. If we're not discussing elements of our worldviews together we aren't fellowshipping as strongly as we can. If we're not investing in difficult dialogue which forces us to examine what we think and how we live in this world then we're not being as edifying as we need to be. That's being relationally irresponsible. Our political views play a big role in how we see the world and live in the world. Our political views have a lot to do with our faithfulness to God according to the New Testament witness.

2. Offending people with our political views is okay. We're not commanded to keep our views hidden so as to not offend others. Offending people isn't wrong and it isn't bad so long as we aren't offensive to God. Sometimes when we honor God we offend others and when we speak of God and his Way we offend others and that's perfectly acceptable. Actually, it's to be expected. When I pressed my friend further as to why we shouldn't express such views she mentioned the danger in doing such a thing when in the vocational ministry. She said it can lead to attacks.

It's true that being vocal about one's politics can lead to being attacked. When we take a strong stance in the public sphere attacks are bound to occur. However, Christians don't fear attack. If our politics are grounded in the scriptures then we are hopefully being more scripture focused than politically issued focused. If we are more God focused than government focused then we have nothing to worry about. Sure, we may get attacked, persecuted, abused, even killed, but if we're preaching the gospel of Christ rather than the gospel of the latest political candidate or if we are being faithful to the love God has called us to then we have no reason to be afraid. Avoiding attack is not a good reason to be silence. Possible attack is a great reason to be loud and loud about the right things!

3. To be Christian is to be political. To avoid discussing politics as a Christian is impossible. The Gospel is itself political! The word Gospel is a political term. The gospels are filled with political language and imagery. Jesus is our King. There is a throne upon which God sits. We're citizens of the kingdom of heaven. There is a heavenly military of which we are a part. We're ambassadors. Jesus is called Prince of Peace. The political motifs in the New Testament (not to mention the Old Testament!) are outrageously repetitive and consistent. When we claim "Christ is Lord" we're making a political statement. When we partake of the Eucharist and Baptism we take political action. We also play a role in politics when we pray for our authorities or the world around us. When we obey the law we're being political. Being Christian is being political and that's something we must all come to terms with. This means that if we want to keep our political views to ourselves we've got to keep our faith and discipleship hidden within ourselves as well. That's not what we are called to.

Whether or not you like his views, Shane Claiborne gives a large portion of time to the political aspects of the gospels in his book Jesus for President. He provides some worthwhile study on what in the gospels is political language and imagery. Much of it may be new information and change the way you see the gospel books of the New Testament. Another great book which examines the political nature of the gospels and how the good news of Jesus Christ affects our politics is The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Work As Worship


Some Christians may think of their seemingly mundane jobs as nothing but trudging through swamps between times of church liturgy. Liturgy means "the work of the people." Knowing this, it can be too easy to think that work is worship but only when that work is what we typically call worship (congregation activities such as Bible study and Sunday morning services). This is not true! Our actual jobs and various forms of work ought to be considered worship as well.

Work has always been a part of life for humanity. Even before the Fall there was work to be done. Genesis 2:15 sates, "The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." Since the beginning, man has worked and it has been the will of God for him to do so. Plus he got to name all those animals (possibly the coolest job ever). For this reason we know that work is in itself good since God gave it to man. Work is a gift of love from God to humanity. God knew man should work and he provided opportunity (before he even made man). A critical part of existing is working! That doesn't mean we devalue or condemn the unemployed but that we begin to look at work in a new way that helps us desire to lead those who aren't working into a type of work so that they may live in worship more fully. Don't be fooled into thinking all work is accompanied by a paycheck either!

Not only did work exist before man fell and had to toil with the ground but it will exist for eternity. When Christ returns and judges all creation he will usher in a new heavens and a new earth. A new earth doesn't merely mean a revamped physical planet but a redeemed world. We will continue to live as we do now. Scripture portrays this coming time as the most glorious of Jerusalem city life. We will use the earth as it was originally meant to be used when all is redeemed. At this time God will be our All in All and we will not cease to worship as we live forever. This means that as we play, love, eat, and work for eternity we shall also be worshipping. So if work will be worship and work was originally worship then we can conclude that work is meant to be worship right now. But what does that even mean and what does worshipful work look like?

While some may think the answer is to simply sing songs of praise, recite creeds, or pray during work (which are all extremely wonderful and productive activities) I suggest there is way to actually see work itself as worship by it's nature. We don't have to evangelize or preach the gospel with our words to make work worship. Work is already worship because working is living into the will of God. It's truly that simple. However, as I will discuss at the end of this article, abuse of work can prove that we worship not God but someone or something other than God. Brother Lawrence once said, "Let us think often that our only business in this life is to please God." This is a good approach to work.

I believe we can see work as worship at various times. We see work as worship...

1. When we take delight in working because we know we are fulfilling a purpose God has for humanity we worship in our work. As stated previously, we were meant to work and to delight in such activity shows a trueness of worship. Working out to fulfill us because it meets a need within us and when that need is met we ought to be delighted. Work is worship when we delight but it remains worship when we work in despair. Work is often hard and painful. Work is often dreaded but when we continue in it we worship for we continue to live our God's will. When we delight though we are better able to see work as worship for we are better in tune to the fact that our effort is meeting a need of our own and a desire of God.

2. When we obey our superiors as though they were God. Though they are different situations, I have always approached work with the instructions for slaves in the New Testament planted within my mind. "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free" (Ephesians 6:5-8). See also Colossians 3:22-25 and 1 Peter 2:18-19. When we work we work under human authority just as Adam worked under God's authority. When we obey superiors we honor and worship God for it is his will that we honor authorities. The direct correlation makes it easy for us to see that work is worship.

3a. When we reveal Christ through being servants to fellow workers. Thérèse (who is often called "The Little Flower") once proclaimed with great joy "My vocation is love!" I had a professor who once told me that no matter what my vocational tasks were my truest work was love and reconciliation. Whether I make pizza, sell shoes, pastor, enter data into computers, write books, babysit, heal animals, file papers, or sling coffee my job is to love people. Just as Christ served others so should we love others in humble service, considering them better than ourselves. When we seek to do all in things in love for God and neighbor we prove our work to be good worship. Work is meant to be service. When Adam was alone with God he worked as love for God alone but when Eve showed up he worked for love of God and Eve. As humanity grew work became love of God and community. Work is meant to contribute to life. Wherever we are and whatever work we may participate in we are to love and serve. This is work as worship. This servanthood is what cultivates life. This servanthood reveals Christ because it is us being Jesus in this world. When Christ is revealed in our work we can more easily see work as worship.

3b. When we reveal Creator God through working well and resting from work. When we work we imitate God who worked for 6 days creating the cosmos and all that is within it. Through working we prove ourselves to be in obedience to God, under his glorious shadow, for in working we do what he has done. It is in us to work. We can't help but give ourselves to something, to others. In this we reveal the character of God. How we do it reveals our own character which can resemble God or Satan but simply doing good work reveals God. Working well means working hard and with integrity (when we scrubs toilets we do it on our knees and not our butts). When God created the earth he was able to call all he had done "good" and as we do the work that can be called "good" we reveal our Creator. When we rest from good work we also reveal God and his wisdom which knows rest is a part of work. When we honor the Sabbath and take rest we reveal God by imitating him, especially when we do so in societies than are obsessed with overworking. Work is seen as worship because it is direct imitation of God and the beginning of humanity's story.

Work is worship. While it's good to ask how we live into that worship or where it is we see that worship most clearly it's also good to ask ourselves who we worship in our work. The way we worship and the work that we do reveals who or what we worship with that work. Are we destroying life, damning neighbors, devaluing ourselves, or defaming God in what we do at our jobs and in our various hobbies? Is our energy put into cultivation or famine? Are we taking care of the world around us or not? If not then we aren't worshiping God. Therefore, let us work hard and well, respecting those we work with, delighting in our tasks, remembering the servant Christ as we obey those in authority above as well as those working below us. Let us reveal the goodness of God through our efforts and take care of the world just as our ancestor Adam was commanded before he chose to rebel against our Creator who worked before we did so that we may one day imitate him as sub-creators and sub-cultivators. May we see work as worship and worship well.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How Do We Partake in the Death of Christ?


Recently someone asked me an impressive theological question. He asked me how people actually partake in the death of Christ. At the heart of the question is the wondering if we need to simply accept some nuanced teaching as allow it to renew our minds and inspire us or if there are actual things we can do in our daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, life that helps us to partake in the death of Jesus Christ. In other words, does this notion actually play out in our lives? To me that's basically asking if the teaching even matters, which is a great question.

Off the bat I need to say that any theology which is merely intellectual and doesn't play itself out in our daily lives is a useless theology. If our theology does not have noticeable fruit in our person, neighbors, and neighborhoods then it is a theology we are wise to dismiss and replace with something that makes a difference in the world. Impractical theology is no servant of God but rather of Satan for it keeps men and women busy in arguments and isolation from the needs of sinful humanity and hurting creation. For this reason I feel compelled to answer this question and explain how we practically partake in the death of Jesus Christ.

Romans 6:1-10,

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

1. Baptism and Eucharist. As St. Paul teaches in this passage, we partake in the death of Christ most clearly in being baptised. In baptism we are put under the water as though being put in the grave and then we are raised back up. Baptism is full of symbolism but it is a great reality that in baptism we are truly buried and raised with Christ. It is a distinct marker in the Christian life (it marks the beginning). Baptism unites us with Christ in his death. To be baptised is to truly die with Christ. Along with baptism is the sacrament of the Eucharist in which we consume the bread and wine which are the body and blood of Christ. In this ceremony we remember Christ and unite ourselves with him and one another, entering into his sacrificial death and redemption. This is a continual marker of being united with Christ in his death. It is important that we gather together and share the Eucharist and practice baptism.

2. Dying to self and sin while living righteous and pure lives in freedom. Paul informs us in verses 2 and 3 that dying to sin and being buried with Christ go hand in hand. To be buried with Christ is also to die to sin. Dying to sin means abandoning sin and living in faithfulness to God, using the freedom of salvation for his glory and not for self. Dying to self means we live not for ourselves as rebellious people but for God in selflessness (vv. 6-7). As Christ gave up himself in his death so we die with him when we give up ourselves for others. When we allow the selfish part of ourselves, the sin within us, to be crucified then we share in the death and life of Christ, becoming new people. Humble service which exists in sacrificial love leads us to partaking in the death of Christ. Whenever we choose others over self we die with Christ.

3. Actual temporal death which is defeated by a resurrection that leads to eternal life with God. We partake in the death of Christ through the actual physical earthly death we shall face. Like Christ, we shall partake of death's sting only to be raised again. Christ was the first to be raised for eternity and many shall follow. In our earthly deaths we share in the Christ's death for it is also temporary and shall be victorious over death itself.

As a side note, we also share in the sufferings of Christ (Romans 8:17, 2 Corinthians 5:1, ). This means that we will be hated and persecuted as Christ Jesus was while he walked on earth. This is not at all hidden from the reader of scripture or early church writings. As we partake in the death of Christ and move closer to partaking of it more we shall walk through these sufferings and we should count it as a blessing for it unites us with Christ.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Mark Driscoll Missteps on Men & Conflict

A while back I critiqued Mark Driscoll, Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, WA when he wrote a blog entitled A Christian Evaluation of Mixed Martial Arts. I'm not anti-MMA but I differ with Driscoll on his view of MMA and the goodness of it. He believes it is a sport that can be redeemed (though he never really explained how when he proposed this notion and I'm still hoping to hear the view). Today I came across a video of Driscoll in an interview about MMA which focused on the nature of men and conflict resolution.

I'm not interested in discussing MMA here but in the issues brought up in Driscoll's points for why MMA is good (from the perspective of a Bible teacher).

Driscoll states, "I don't think there is anything purer than two guys in a cage... and just see which man is better."

It's bothersome to think that the most pure sport or (as will later be discussed) conflict resolution method is men fighting each other inside a cage. Another bothersome aspect of this statement is that men are being deemed better than one another based on how good of fighters they are. Pay no mind to character, integrity, faithfulness to God, ability to entertain (for sports), or ability to resolve a conflict peacefully (a goal for all Christians it would seem if we value Romans 12:18 and Hebrews 12:14). If this is what Driscoll is saying then he's way off base. However, maybe all he is saying is that cage fighting is the most primitive form of sport/conflict resolution and that one man is simply a better fighter than the other. That I'll agree with. It's my hope that all he meant was the second interpretation because if we're talking about Christian purity then this is not the most pure sport or method of conflict resolution. To be clear, I'm not condemning MMA as a sport.

He then states, "God made men masculine and he made humanity male and female and men and women are different... men are created for combat, men are made for conflict, men are made for dominion..."

Driscoll implies that women are not made for conflict, dominion, or combat. This is a difference between the two. I won't discuss dominion here but suffice it to say Driscoll and I disagree that men alone have dominion (in marriages, church, or over creation). Conflict is a good thing since there are differences and since there is the presence of both good and evil in the world. Since there is brokenness due to sin and things must be fixed there is thus a need for and inevitability of conflict. Too often we see conflict as a negative when it's very often a positive. I believe both men and women are too engage in conflict. However, I don't believe we were created for conflict but rather to live in the love of God. Conflict is a result of sin.

I also don't believe men are made for combat. Nothing in scripture leads me to believe that one of God's purposes for creating males was that they would fight one another. Humanity was not meant to be a cosmic episode of Battle Bots. Men combat but that doesn't mean they were created for that purpose and it doesn't mean God wants them to combat in any way they see fit. The way God's people combat in this broken world is through the Word of God and prayer according to 2 Corinthians 10:3-4. The Apostle Paul teaches that "...our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Ephesians 6:12). We weren't made for combat but we engage in combat while in this world. However, according to Paul we don't combat humans made of flesh and blood and we don't do it with weapons of man or in the way that those of the world do it (and if you've ever seen a Bruce Lee movie you know fists are weapons). For more on this see my article How and Who Christians Fight. Like conflict, combat is a result of rebellion against God and not a result of God's will and work.

The Mars Hill Pastor goes on to say, "...you can put them [males] in the worst public high school and tell them that they need to just be into their feelings and talk about their feelings and cry a lot and finger-paint their inner life, at the end of the day they're still gonna want to throw down and when they go to recess two guys are going to go at it and see which one is the dude. And that's just the way men are made."

It's interesting that Driscoll stages his hypothetical men in the worst public high school. Odds are it's in a bad part of town where violence, poverty, racism, poor education, and other evils thrive. Of course boys in those places want to fight! It's all they know (and I know that because I live and work with them). Regardless, that doesn't mean that fighting is the best or even a good form of conflict resolution. If it is then we need to support it more often and on bigger scales. That means we invest more in wars and teach all our children how to fight as warriors. If we carry Driscoll's logic which says that men are created for the sake of combat to it's end we end up with a barbaric being. Sadly, this could result in the earth being filled with violence as in the days of Noah (Genesis 6:11-13). That's a lot of progress lost.

At this point in the interview we have to enter the realm of conflict resolution because Driscoll is no longer talking about mere sport, according to his illustration, but about conflict and the nature of men (but not women because they weren't created for conflict or combat). With Driscoll's way of conflict resolution counselors can trade in their degrees for black belts. At this point we also have to determine that Driscoll isn't merely saying, as optioned before, that one man is simply a better fighter but that one man is simply a better man. "To see which one is the dude" is to imply that one is a man (because he can fight and win and thus is superior in combat for which he was created) while the other is more like a woman (who does not combat due to not being created for it). This, in my opinion, can easily lead to putting women below men in value.

Recognizing and talking about our feelings (especially to the point of emotional breakthrough which causes crying at times) and being able to communicate our inner-workings is healthy! Ask a counselor! It's horrifying to know that Driscoll is a pastor of thousands and he doesn't value these skills. Instead of embracing simple and healthy ways of life he jabs at them in jest. In his own evaluation of MMA, Driscoll mocked the picture of a Jesus who is in touch with his feelings in order to demean pacifists. Not only does Driscoll prefer violence (be it controlled) over proven methods of counseling that help individuals recognize their issues and communicate well in order for reconciliation to happen but he dislikes these methods so much that he mocks a Saviour who would employ them. For Driscoll, being in touch with one's feelings is a negative thing. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt but I don't know how else we are to understand his statements.

I don't want a Saviour who is out of touch with his feelings. Nobody should. That's an unhealthy and out of tune person. Jesus isn't unhealthy or out of tune. He knows this creation and he knows himself. He has to be in touch with his feelings. We know Christ is a compassionate person who doesn't mask, avoid, repress, or have ignorance of his feelings because the gospels repeatedly show him crying for others, being sensitive to children, even sweating blood like sweat over difficult situations. Not only that but he speaks boldly, is angered, and overthrows tables in righteousness. This is a man not acting out of unjustifiable or unexplainable rage but a man who understands and is in touch with his inner workings, his feelings. Driscoll can have a saviour who is disconnected from his feelings all he wants but he won't have the Jesus of the Bible if he does.

To finish his above statement Driscoll says, "So either allow that in a way that is violent and inappropriate, which is what a lot of guys do through criminal activity, or we put it together as a viable legitimate sport and let men be men and do what men do and let the other fat lazy men sit around and criticize them while watching."

Here's the problem with this philosophy: For the sport to be legitimate it must have regulations and those regulations, according to what I've seen, won't be ones that most of the boys in the worst public school will be able or willing to submit to. In that case, we still have the same problem on our hands of people having conflict and no means to resolve it, except violent and illegal activities. What's more, because of this world Driscoll has created, MMA is much larger and thus fighting is promoted heavily all around them and with the bad education they receive at their school all they know is that fighting is the answer to their problems both on the streets and on television. The celebrities are fighting as much as their friends, enemies, and families. The people in society such as pastors who are to be helping to pull these young men out of their cycles and subcultures of darkness aren't doing that. Instead, those people are teaching them that a great way to resolve conflict and live into manhood is to beat other men in a controlled environment to (hopefully) the point of knockout or a begging of release. Without healthy introspective skills and the attempt to reconcile and find peace over finding dominance through violence there won't be any progress.

I work with counselors and at risk homeless youth. I see the fellas who invest in combat for conflict resolution and who don't know how to be in touch with their feelings. They are dangerous, unhealthy, and often hopeless. Part of our work is to help them become self-aware so that they can recognize their feelings and communicate those feelings well. We work hard to establish healthy practices of conflict resolution which don't employ violence (since it obviously hasn't helped them thus far) but allow them to confront their enemy lovingly and respectfully in peace. When we do this and when the guys we work with adopt the teachings and practices we provide for them they begin to thrive. They begin living healthier lives and having healthier relationships. They get in less trouble and begin to build a future for themselves and those around them.

It's true that physical exertion can help in times of frustration but we don't need to beat each other up for that result. We can run, lift weight, use punching bags, and invest in other activities that don't harm our neighbors. Even wrestling and certain forms of martial arts can provide this help without demanding we cause damage to the flesh of those who are flesh and blood.

All of this leads me to believe that Driscoll's favored form of conflict resolution is counterintuitive to the reconciliation ministry of Jesus Christ. Fighting is typically devisive. It pits people against one another with the goal of one person defeating the other, often through knocking the opponent unconscious or forcing him to beg for a release from the pain being inflicted upon him. Jesus is not concerned with defeating those who are against him but with reconciling them to him. This is why he forgives and suffers. This is why he dies. This is why he picks up a cross instead of a sword and why he tells us to do the same. We need to be reconciled to God and to one another! When we have conflict with one another or have been sinned against we have models for resolution provided by Jesus in Matthew 5:23-26 and 18:15-19. Granted, these are mostly models for believers who have conflict with believers but it would hardly make sense to conclude that we should set aside our peaceful means of reconciliation for those outside our fellowship or to suggest they use other means to reconcile with one another.

I may be fat, lazy, or a woman according to Driscoll's interview* but I can live with that if it means I'm investing in the ministry of reconciliation in a way that doesn't harm my neighbor or demean the qualities of healthy people. "Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you" (2 Corinthians 13:11). Let's be in touch with our feelings and tell or youth that self awareness and communication create a better future than beating each other up inside cages.

*This was pointed out to me by a tweet from Greg Boyd.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Not Everything Happens For A Reason


Not long ago I saw a picture on Instagram (a picture sharing app on iPhones) that said "Everything happens for a reason." and underneath it said "(American Proverb)."* I don't know if this saying is one that is unique to the America's but I've certainly grown up hearing it. For a long time I believed it. Many of my friends still believe it. However, I've come to believe that it isn't true, at least not in the way it is often employed.

The implication of the saying is that everything that occurs, even our choices, are the result of some divine plan which is essentially a blue print (as Greg Boyd illustrates it) for the cosmos throughout eternity. Some people call this fate. There are several problems with this belief. Some of these ideas come from reading the work of pastor Greg Boyd.

It's true that everything that happens can be somewhat explained. In that sense there is a reason for everything. However, it'd be more correct to say there is an explanation for everything (even if we can't quite reach it yet). This is why science and history are so valuable for humanity to embrace as much as possible. If we can explain and understand what has already occurred we can better plan for tomorrow. Much of the time we can easily look at our life situations and, if we are honest, discern why things are the way they are. We are able to say "I am late on rent because I spent money on junk food and video games instead" or "I don't have a father because the man who is half responsible for my birth was afraid of the commitment and abandoned my mother." Our circumstances can typically be explained by our behavior and the behavior of others.

This is why the popular cliche is so dangerous. It can sweep responsibility under the rug. If everything happens because it has been previously determined to happen by God then I'm not truly responsible for anything. The choices I make were never truly choices and thus my circumstances are never anything but the work of God who is puppeteering all his creation. The Bible does not paint this picture though. While God has sovereignty and will bring his plans to fruition through working in the world he is not a forceful God but a serving God. God will never be truly thwarted. Don't be fooled, just because everything doesn't happen as a result of God's direct action doesn't mean that some things don't happen for this reason. For example: Because Jesus commands, the storm was hushed (Matthew 8:23-27). God has a plan but he has given his people free will so that they may choose to live or die (see Genesis 3). God does not desire for us to make poor choices which go against his will for the cosmos but he allows it. This is a reason for everything. God has taken the risk of giving his creation choice. Such an existence has the potential for good and bad. As we all know, both exist because both are chosen by all people. If we were not given choice we could say everything happens because God made it happen and thus our responsibility would cease to exist but this is not the case.

We can safely conclude that God has plans and desires for his creation and that his creation has the freedom to choose between living in or out of his will. Everything that occurs or exists does so because God has allowed it to occur or exist, even if it was brought about through our own exercising of freedom. We can conclude not only that God has allowed an infinite amount of things to happen due to our freedom but that he is able and willing to work all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). Yes, God has a plan for everything that happens, even if he did not desire for it to happen. Many things happen that God does not desire (read the Bible if you disagree and you'll quickly see this is true). This is called sin. But God has a plan for all things because he is concerned with redeeming this fallen cosmos. He is working to reconcile all things back to him (Colossians 1:19-20).

It may be defeated at first to realize that God is not fully responsible for everything that happens but soon, with meditation, it becomes a great relief. What good is a God who is responsible for a creation without free will in which all abortions, wars, rapes, deaths, beatings, divorces, betrayals, abandonments, and evils thrive? Isn't it much better to know we are responsible for what is wrong with the world and to know that a good God is working to fix what we have twisted? Isn't it encouraging to know that even if we make mistakes or if others purposefully do evil that God has a plan for all those evils, that they may be used for his good plans? I certainly think that is far better to have a redeeming God who rescues than a control obsessed god who wants evil to flourish among his creation.

*It turns out the image is from quotablecards.com.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Does Government Set the Standard for Morality?


My friend "K" asked a question on Facebook recently. He asked, "Should it be the government's job to set a standard for morality in the United States?"

As a Christian there are truths which I must (and want to) proclaim. One of those truths is that morality, justice, goodness, life, and healthy cultivation all derive from the Creator God revealed in the holy scriptures known as Yahweh (YHWH). Throughout scripture God directs his creation on how to operate within the universe so that life may exist and exist in goodness and abundance, in fullness. From Adam and Eve whom he gave directions on how to live in the Garden of Eden, to Noah and his family whom he chose (due to righteousness) to refill the earth, to the Israelites and their neighboring nations (remember the Ten Commandments?), to kings, to prophets, to the world through Jesus Christ God has revealed the Truth, the Life, and the Way. Life is found in Christ. The Creator is found in Christ. Since Christ is the the fullest revelation of Creator God in history it follows that in Christ we see the standard for how to live (morality) more clearly than anywhere else.

Since it is God, and in a unique sense, Jesus Christ, whom we receive morality from, it then follows that those who submit to The Way of the Creator are the people on earth who give witness to the standard of morality which is found in Christ Jesus. These are the people people who imitate Jesus Christ. In the New Testament these people are said to be those who are "like Jesus in this world." While it is true that these people are not always found in the established church it seems according to the New Testament and early Christian writings that the people who fit this descriptions are those who are called Christians, having been baptised "members" of the Church, partaking in the Eucharist, and living under the authority of the scriptures. In shorter words, the universal morality given to man by God is most clearly exhibited and witnessed to by the Church. This is the way things ought to be. Sadly, the institutional church fails at being a faithful witness and example. Sometimes a grater witness is seen in those who don't even confess Christ. Regardless, it is the Church to which God has established witness for the world and it is the Church which must set the standard on earth, in all nations.

In other words, the Church ought to be setting the standard by example/witness because she is like Jesus in this world. Laws won't change hearts like love will. Behavior modification is not true morality as God as given but rather an imitation that falls drastically short. God seeks to transform rebellious creation. Within that transformation morality is most adopted. But what then is the government's role in connection to morality? If it is not the authorities who set the standard for the people of the nations then what is it they are to do? Surely there is a connection between governments and how morality is lived out.

Governments can govern the people, punishing and rewarding those who embrace or reject the standard of morality set by God for all people (according to Romans 13:1- and 1 Peter 2:13-17) but the governments do not set the standard. The governments are enforces who are meant to ensure peace among the people. As Romans 13:4 points out, "For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." Within this we see that God has established authorities to function in connection with the morality he has given humanity while we also see that God did not institute the authorities to create a standard of morality. We react to God and the morality he has given and the authorities react to us. Thus it is never the government's duty, according to their nature as illustrated in scripture, to set the standard of morality for the people of nations because Christ has already set the standard and it is his followers who are to be a witness and example to that standard while the governments react to people who do good and bad according to the universal standard that God has given to creation.

Endnote: While it is the Church who examples and gives witness to God's gift of Universal morality, it is best that the individual authorities live into that morality as well. It is also a duty of the Christian to pray for the authorities. An examination of this duty and an example of such a prayer can be found here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Christians As Aliens on Earth


I focus a lot on the issue of identity. Ecclesiology is important to me and I believe our ecclesiology (study of the church) is rooted in our Christology (study of Christ). As a result of this I often write about how Christians, like Jesus, operate within the world but are not of it in nature. By adoption of the Father God we are citizens of his heavenly kingdom and thus have become strangers to the world which is a rebellious place ruled by Satan. The world is not all bad since it is a creation of God which he deemed good in Genesis (and even still the creation obeys him according to the gospels) but the influence of the enemy is strong. It is not at all uncommon for me to stress that Christians are to view themselves as strangers or foreigners where they live. Cities, states, countries, world... we are aliens to them all even though they are, for the time being, our home. We are like the exiles in Jeremiah whom God told to settle in the land, expecting to establish a life where he had placed them.

I would like to share with you an early Christian writing that supports this notion and cemented it more firmly within me several years ago. The following is a portion from a work entitled Letter to Diognetus (also known as Mathetes to Diognetus). Diognetus was a tutor of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who admired him for his freedom from superstition and sound educational advice, but he is not likely to be the actual recipient, or even the assumed recipient, of this apology. This letter was written at the end of the second century and it is an apologetic letter which means that it is a letter in defense of the Christians. Nobody is saying they are sorry but rather making a case. The translation I am using is one found in Eberhard Arnold's work entitled The Early Christians; In Their Own Words (which is free online). Below are chapters 5 and 6.

Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of humankind by country, speech, or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not speak a special language; they do not follow a peculiar manner of life. Their teaching was not invented by the ingenuity or speculation of men, nor do they advocate mere book learning, as other groups do. They live in Greek cities and they live in non-Greek cities according to the lot of each one. They conform to the customs of their country in dress, food, and the general mode of life, and yet they show a remarkable, an admittedly extraordinary structure of their own life together. They live in their own countries, but only as guests and aliens. They take part in everything as citizens and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign country is their homeland, and every homeland is a foreign country to them. They marry like everyone else. They beget children, but they do not expose them after they are born. They have a common table, but no common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but through their way of life they surpass these laws. They love all people and are persecuted by all. Nobody knows them, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and just through this they are brought to life. They are as poor as beggars, and yet they make many rich. They lack everything, and yet they have everything in abundance. They are dishonored, and yet have their glory in this very dishonor. They are insulted, and just in this they are vindicated. They are abused, and yet they bless. They are assaulted, and yet it is they who show respect. Doing good, they are sentenced like evildoers. When punished with death, they rejoice in the certainty of being awakened to life. Jews attack them as people of another race, and Greeks persecute them, yet those who hate them cannot give any reason to justify their hostility.

In a word: what the soul is in the body, the Christians are in the world. As the soul is present in all the members of the body, so Christians are present in all the cities of the world. As the soul lives in the body, yet does not have its origin in the body, so the Christians live in the world yet are not of the world. Invisible, the soul is enclosed by the visible body: in the same way the Christians are known to be in the world, but their religion remains invisible. Even though the flesh suffers no wrong from the soul, it hates the soul and fights against it because it is hindered by the soul from following its lusts; so too the world, though suffering no wrong from the Christians, hates them because they oppose its lusts. The soul loves the flesh, but the flesh hates the soul; as the soul loves the members of the body, so the Christians love those who hate them. The soul is enclosed in the body, yet it holds the body together; the Christians are kept prisoners in the world, as it were, yet they are the very ones who hold the world together. Immortal, the soul lives in a mortal house; so too the Christians live in a corruptible existence as strangers and look forward to incorruptible life in heaven. When the body is poorly provided with food and drink, the soul gains strength. In the same way the number of Christians increases day by day when they are punished with death. Such is the important task God has entrusted to the Christians and they must not shirk it.

It's interesting how different the lives of the Christians in the late second century look from the lives of Christians today in the United States. The issues are a bit different and the persecutions and deaths are vastly different. The Christians were more rightly hated then and there than they are here and now (in my opinion). Since Christians are in such a peculiar position in the United States today (compared to the first few hundred years of the Church) this teaching concerning identity and citizenship is more important than ever. Now, when it is easy to be overly comfortable and identified with worldly nations, Christians must remember their true identity, their true home, their true citizenship, and live according to the demands that come along with that.

We are to be a unique people, in this world but not of it. More than anything else this looks like living righteous lives in which sin is not present among us. However, we refrain from sinning because of who we are, because of our identity. Because we belong to God and his kingdom and thus operate under his reign we obey him and keep away from sin (which is rebellion against his reign). It is my belief that this allegiance to Christ, in terms of identity, goes beyond the issue of sin and reaches into how we define ourselves on this earth.

Monday, January 9, 2012

An Appropriate Patriotism for Christians


In my last article I discussed the sin of nationalistic idolatry and how it can creep into out hearts via the guise of patriotism. I also said that there is an acceptable and healthy form of patriotism that exists for Christians who belong to the kingdom of God that does not belong to this world. My brother Nick Don suggested I write about what I believe that healthy patriotism looks like. Below are elements of that patriotism. As this is my first attempt at laying out this patriotism it's only right to warn you that this is a rough draft which will probably need improvement. By no means is this an exhaustive look at what an appropriate patriotism but rather it is a list of categories. For now, enjoy and please lend your feedback.

1. Expressing thankfulness for the blessings of that nation to God and humanity. All good gifts are from God (Luke 11:13) and we know that He is involved in our lives and has given us the authorities in his wisdom. We honor God, the authorities, and the nation as a well when we name the blessings within our nation and celebrate what is good and of God. When there is justice for the poor we rejoice, when there are times of peace, we give thanks, and so on. It's too easy to be known for what we are against and thus it is important to be consistently loud in our thanks.

2. Honoring the authorities (1 Peter 13-17). When we honor the authorities we bestow upon them respect and treat them as we would like to be treated. That means we acknowledge that God has placed them in the position of power they hold and we accept it. We speak honestly of them and appeal to their positive traits and gifts when confronting them. We do not curse them but bless them. We do not gossip or speak vulgarly of them. We are loving towards them even in spirit and silence. Most of all, we pray for them (1 Timothy 2:1-3). This applies to Presidents, senators, congress-people, police officers, certain military personnel, city officials, and more. In our attitudes, words, and deeds we are to honor those in authority. We ought to pray for peace, justice, and blessings for others but never in a way that shows a favoritism for the people who live in the same nation of us over those who live and operate in/for other nations. When we respect other nations and their authorities we are patriotic as well for in such action we demonstrate a living attitude and represent the land we live in well. Living in this way helps to create the nation we desire to see develop.

3. Obeying the law as a good citizen (Romans 13). We obey the law predominantly as a consequence of the nation having laws that align with God's expectations for his people so this is rarely difficult. Of course, when the law of the land goes against what God has commanded Christians are right and even patriotic to commit civil disobedience (something the United States is founded on and has praised in retrospect several times in her history). By obeying the law we show respect and approval of the goodness of the nation's morality and obedience to God. By disobeying unjust laws with are against the Way of God we do a Godly and patriotic service by calling the authorities back to the Way of God in order that she may continue function as she was created, to be a servant for the Creator, keeping just governance over the people.

4. Pay taxes (Luke 20:20-26). There is debate over this one but scripture seems to indicate that there's no need to start a revolution when money doesn't matter too much and everything belongs to God. Give back to the emperor, king, president, what is his. In paying our taxes we are financially participating in the development (or destruction) of our nation as our authorities have demanded. Since we are people who pray and know that our prayers have a greater power in the world than our taxes we can give that money back, as asked, knowing that God is working. This is similar to obeying the law but because it is given it's own space in Jesus' teaching's I think it right to give it space here as well.

5. Loving the people within in the nation and living at peace with them. Nations are made up of people and thus it is patriotic to love the people who make up that nation. By being involved in the lives of the people around us and blessing them day to day we show that we care for the individual and for the whole nation. Some may call this micro-patriotism; small acts that show a valuing of a larger group of which the recipient of these acts is a part. It should be said that this applies in greater measure when encountering those whom we disagree with, especially when it comes to how the nation ought to function. When we love those people, who always desire to see the nation improved, it shows our great concern for how the people in our nation live by exampling that lifestyle. By creating peace among the people we show a value for the people of the nation and thus our patriotism.

6. Bearing witness to the authorities concerning the Lordship of Christ and the proper role of the authorities according to scripture. As a people who understand the function of the authorities on earth and who placed them there it is our duties (for we are indeed our brother's keeper) to do what we are able to ensure that the authorities remember they are servants of God. This does not mean we try to pass laws that force Christian morality on others but rather that we speak truth to power, keeping in contact with the authorities and reminding them with prayer, encouragement, challenge, and rebuke (when needed) that they are to govern as men and women entrusted with a great power by the Creator of all things. We remind them that they rest upon the shoulders of Jesus Christ and ought to honor him and that if they will not then they must repent. By showing the nation that we understand it's true nature and by calling it to live into it's purpose we show the upmost patriotism.

7. Being involved in the local community so that life flourishes. Shop local, attend city council meetings, write to the mayor and state officials, etc. Whether you vote or not, this is the best way to be the hands and feet of Christ in your neighborhood. By cleaning up parks, pushing city council to put a stop sign on the corner of X and 1st, coaching little league, or any other beneficial local community activity we contribute to the small part of the nation we live in. We make our homes here and thus we should seek to cultivate life here. Patriotic people are best seen in the fruits of their labor and the goodness they bring after they've lived somewhere for a while. If the neighborhoods and neighbors are changing in a way that glorifies God and makes the nation a pleasing one by the way we operate in relation to them then we are being patriotic (and good stewards). For some people this looks like being the head of public works and for others it looks like writing a letter to repave 63rd street.

Healthy patriotism is rooted in how we love and obey God. Our concern must be to love God and neighbor as imitators of Christ. When we seek to do this we will inevitably live as good citizens, even if the state will at times disagree with what a good citizen looks like. Martin Luther King Jr. is an excellent example of a patriotic Christian who was, at times, seen as a bad citizen when he was actually a supreme citizen. He changed the U.S.A. because he loved God and loved the nation and the potential she had.

We don't need to wave flags, pledge our allegiance, pick up arms, attend parades, obey the flag code of the National Anthem, buy "support our troops" bumper stickers, or even vote for the next President to be patriotic citizens of the nation we live in. In fact, some of those activities can be downright idolatrous. We can be thankful, honoring, obedient, challenging, and involved citizens without compromising our identity or values as Christian people who are firstly citizens of God's heavenly kingdom. We're foreigners where we live but that doesn't mean we can't be productive people who delight in where we've made our temporary home.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Nationalistic Idolatry

Idolatry is the sin of glorifying and aligning ourselves with gods other than the Triune God of the Bible who is revealed in Jesus Christ. The first commandment given to Israel at Mount Sinai was to "have no other gods before" YHWH (Exodus 20:3). We know that idolatry does not demand we bow down to idols made of wood, gold, or stone but that it can occur within our hearts and that our gods/masters can be anything from Vishnu to the numbers in our bank accounts. Anything that we allow to reign in our hearts so that is has authority over us and ends up leading us, taking our heart and mind captive, that is a false god whom we worship.

A popular form of idolatry is nationalistic idolatry. It often comes to power under the guise of patriotism. What happens is that Christians mix up the priority of their kingdom-of-God-citizenship identity with their earthly-national-citizenship identity, allowing the two to mix together in a way that allows their earthly-national-citizenship to become more important to them, and thus more ruling in their lives, than their identity which is found in Christ Jesus. In shorter words, nationalistic idolatry is putting country before/above Christ or even confusing the two.

In this mindset it can be believed that God has created a new theocracy of sorts in one's own country. Since I live in the United states and it is a nation with the reputation of "a Christian nation" (whatever that is supposed to mean) we'll use that as the example. Those who live in nationalistic idolatry of this sort (in some forms Christ is dismissed altogether) often believe that God is using the U.S. as his chosen people and their government as his chosen means of operating in the world. In other words, Americans and their form of democracy are God's gift to the world and thus, in the words of Senator John McCain, "the last best hope of Earth." This statement, originally made by Lincoln, in a slightly less idolatrous context, has been publicly quoted by Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.

We can easily see the leaders of the United States committing this type of nationalistic idolatry that mixes together the traditions and doctrine of the Church with the traditions and doctrine of the United States. President George W. Bush said, "There’s power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people." He also stated, "The ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. … That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.When we begin to replace Jesus with the United States we commit nationalistic idolatry. When we dismiss the commands of Christ for the sake of our identity and loyalty with a nation we commit nationalistic idolatry. We can often see nationalistic idolatry through art.

(This flag is actually for purchase)

Photobucket

If we're praying for the military of our nation to be blessed with good aim to kill their national enemies in war, we're committing nationalistic idolatry by choosing to love our country more than our neighbor and our God who demands we love enemies. If we "support our troops" and don't believe "their" troops belong to us just as much then we are committing nationalistic idolatry by allowing our nation to define us more than the Christ who lives and dies for all who are against him. It is nationalistic idolatry that leads to the creation of idolatrous bibles such as The American Patriot's Bible which likens U.S. soldiers to the Son of God and connect July 4th directly with the Incarnation of Christ by saying "Is it not that, in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior? That it forms a leading event in the progress of the Gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer's mission upon earth?" (for a review of this scripture go here). It is this same idolatry which leads to situations like the one in Iraq where soldiers preached "Jesus killed Mohammed."

When we believe that Jesus has established the U.S. (or any nation) to do his will of reconciliation on this earth instead of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, then we commit nationalistic idolatry. The examples are endless. The issue comes down to identity. Do we know ourselves to be bond-servant's of Christ who are citizens in the kingdom of heaven or bond-servants of one particular group of human beings and citizens of one wordly nation which shall one day pass away? Which forms our identity and influences our words and deeds the most? Which serves which? Are we American Christians or Christians in America? Too many of us are Americans before we are Christians and this is not to be so. Do we know the Apostle's Creed as well as The Pledge of Allegiance? Are we more reverent during the National Anthem or the reading of scripture?

This type of idolatry tells us that a true Christian must be of a certain political party and must push that party's agenda. If, as Stanley Hauerwas states, "faith in God is indistinguishable from loyalty to ...country" there is a problem within our hearts and we must repent. God wants to bring all nations, though they be worthless (Isaiah 40:17), to himself (Psalm 22:27, Daniel 7:14), and has given the ministry of Christ, which is reconciliation, to the Church (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). When God previously used a theocracy it was so that they would be a blessing to the entire world, bringing them close to God and not necessarily into a particular nation (Genesis 18:18). We are to have renewed minds (Romans 12:1-2), new selves (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10), knowing that we are within this world but not defined by since we do not belong to it (John 15:19), away from our true home as foreigners (John 17:16, 18:36, 2 Corinthians 10:3), representing the king of kings as his ambassadors on this earth (2 Corinthians 5:10, Ephesians 6:20), loving all people (Mark 12:31, Matthew 5:43-48). We can be patriotic, thankful for the blessings that exist within the nation we're legal citizens of but we can not worship that nation by allowing to define us or to make us waver in our commitment to Christ. Jesus calls us to be a people for people and whenever one group of people tries to set us against another group of people for their own reasons we must refuse it, choosing to obey God rather than man. We are to be servants to all and mastered by One (Deuteronomy 6:4) and that One is Jesus Christ (John 1:1).

The Jesus of scripture is not wrapped in the American flag but in he banner of divine love. He is not expressed in America or her flag but in the face of Jesus Christ of Nazareth who died upon a cross covered in blood and rose again three days later. He is our Creator and thus our Definer. He models for us who we ought to be and how we ought to live, thus we are truly of him when we are like him in this world (1John 4:17). Let us be good citizens, honoring our authorities (1 Peter 2:17) but never allowing them to have our allegiance which belongs to Christ so that we may love all creation, doing good to all. Let us love our nations enough to not be enslaved to them in our hearts. Let us call them to their rightful spot beneath Christ, as his servant, to live in peace with the rest of the world (Romans 13:6). Let us know nothing but Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2) and be transformed into his likeness and not into whatever it is our nation may want us to be. As Colossians 2:6-10 states,

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Jeremiah 29:11; You're Doing It Wrong


It doesn't take long after entering a Christian community to hear people use Jeremiah 29:11 to encourage themselves or others. It seems to be many Christian's go-to verse for encouragement during hard times or when looking forward to the future. This practice needs some examining. Let's start with the good stuff.

Jeremiah 29:11 reads, "For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." That's great news. That is a beautiful promise from God for his people called Israel. I believe this is true for all God's people and not merely the specific audience it was delivered to. At the same time, there is truth in this passage that we can apply to our lives. The original audience was being promised something that was dealing with their specific situation (this will be discusses momentarily) and even though the plans, hope, and future are different for us than for the specific original recipients the general truth still applies. The plan for people now is to be reconciled to God through Christ. The hope now is in Christ and for the future of eternal life with God. The prospering is an eternal prospering in which we live together with God as our All in All.

This is part of what many believers are thinking when they use this verse to encourage others. Other times believers use this verse because of the notion that God just wants to give us good gifts, which is also true. Yet, too often we read this as a good word to the individual reader of today as though it means God is going to take care of us and give us all the good things in life we think we need like a new car, a paid off home, and affordable private school for our kids. That's not the case. God does have a plan for all people and they have a choice to live into it or not. Whatever we do, whatever happens, God has a plan for that reality. We will live into God's plans even if we're not living into his ideal plan for us (that we be reconciled to him and do his work on earth as a faithful people). God will direct us according to his will and our choices (example: Pharaoh in Exodus). Encouraging one another with these truths is an excellent practice. However, when we use this verse to communicate these things we are forced to neglect the context of the verse which is far less encouraging (get ready to lose that new car and paid off home).

This verse represents and communicates theological truths if left alone but the verse isn't alone in scripture and we want to be careful to not misuse it. Just because this scripture wraps up several wonderful truths in a neat little bow (when out of context) that doesn't mean we ought to reference it to serve our purposes, even if those purposes are backed with righteous motivations. We can speak these truths without compromising our understanding of or future approach to Jeremiah 29:11. Let's approach the verse with context in mind and see what comes about.

What is the context? The opening verse of chapter 29 tells us that "This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon." Here we see a specific author (Jeremiah), a specific group of recipients (surviving elders, priests, prophets, and various people among them in exile), and a spcific situation (exile from Jerusalem into Babylon). Later we will learn this exile is due to disobedience (we also learned this earlier in chapter 27). Verse 2 gives a little more context about the time and situation stating, "This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem."

Verse 4 states that God brought some (not all) of his people into Exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. The following verses are instructions from God to the exiles to set up a life in their exiled city and get settled, basically making it home. "Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (v. 7). All hope is not lost for these Israelites but they can plan on being exiled for a long time. Exile is now home. From here God begins his message that involves verse 11.

"When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place" (v. 10). The encouragement begins. Exile will last a long time (about 70 years it seems) but then the exiles will be returned. Then verse 11 shows up, "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" God has plans for these Israelites, specific plans, and those plans involve a long exile and then a return to Jerusalem. Long exile then a return is the plan (or at least the foreseeable part of the plan). There is hope in the return to Jerusalem and future in Jerusalem but the immediate future is exile.

Verse 12 shows God saying, "Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." When will this happen? After the return to Jerusalem. After the exile and the return from captivity God will hear the prayers of his people and they will find him with their heart. For right now though, he has exiled them. God has exiled his people. God is disciplining his people and he does this because he loves them (Proverbs 3:11-12) and since he is just they must deserve it. Verses 15-19 state, "You may say, 'The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,' but this is what the LORD says about the king who sits on David’s throne and all the people who remain in this city, your fellow citizens who did not go with you into exile—yes, this is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth, a curse and an object of horror, of scorn and reproach, among all the nations where I drive them. For they have not listened to my words,' declares the LORD, 'words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either,' declares the LORD." All of this is a reference to Jeremiah 27.

With these verses we understand that those in power (nobles), those in Jerusalem, and those in exile have all not listened to God's words. All have worked against God, disobeying him by listening to the words of false prophets. Thus, God is disciplining his people and allowing his wrath (which derives from his love) to fall upon them just as he had promised, giving to them what results in disobedience against God. Even now, God disciplines those he loves. Jeremiah 29:11 is applicable to our lives but so is the rest of the chapter (and book)! We're wayward! We sin! We don't listen to his words! We need a loving God! We need discipline! Because of all this, and because God is in relationship with us, we need the whole chapter.

We can also gather from this that God will not be thwarted. His plans will prevail, somehow, and it's best if we have faith in what God is doing, even if it seem strange. We are to follow God and none but him. If we do not do this we will find consequences which have already been explained to us. The consequences are a natural result of our choices and God is working his plans out in it all.

So yes, God has a future for us and desires to give us good gifts, but he also has discipline and exile for us. He has wrath. This passage is great for discussion on discipline and the results of rebelling against God but as far as talking about the overall future plans God has for our lives, it's not the most encouraging. It only fits our purposes when it is out of context and we shouldn't use scripture to fit our purposes. When Jeremiah 29:11 is out of context we can please our own ears and put money in our pockets by selling it to others (and plenty of Christians do it). Fortunately, God is just and, as they ought to know, he has plans for those who tickle ears and prefer profits over prophets. Those plans may not be exactly what those folks expect or want.

Let's approach scripture considering context and learning the lessons from it the author intended. Sure, the Spirit will speak truths to us that may not be the exact message the author intended but we have to be careful how we present scripture to others and ourselves. If we are reading Jeremiah 29 to people to say they're going to make it through hard times we're not giving them the full message of the passage. We have to be responsible with scripture, serving God with it and being transformed by it instead of using it for our own purposes. Many scriptures are encouraging and speak of God's love, promises, provision, faithfulness, and more. Let's use those scriptures which are most appropriate for those times.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Gender-Neutralizing Hymns; Is It Right or Wrong?


My sister StephanieP wrote a really good blog today entitled I sang neutered Christmas songs today. In it she writes,

In Church today, a few lyrics of certain hymns were a bitdifferent than I remembered them. “Good ChristianMen Rejoice” had quietly changed to “Good Christian Friends Rejoice.” In Joy to the World, where we hadpreviously been commanded to “let mentheir songs employ,” the verse now proclaims “let us our songs employ.” GodRest Ye Merry Gentlemen still references gentlemen, no longer encourages us“with true love andbrotherhood, letothers now embrace,” but rather “with true love and charity…”

Stephanie feels that the gender-neutral changes are bad because they could lead one to believe there was something wrong with the original lyrics. In these cases, she worries that a person may think that perhaps the church which changes the altered lyrics is claiming that the original lyrics showed a type of unChristian chauvinism (though, all chauvinism is unChristian I suppose) and we don't want to lead people down that path since it isn't true of the author's intent.

I agree with her. However, I disagree that a change demands the notion that there was a problem with the previous work. Things can move from good to better or from one thing to a different thing. It doesn't have to be a bad thing to a good thing or a wrong thing to a right thing. Gender-neutralizing beautiful works isn't always an attempt to right wrongs or to say there was a problem with the work in it's original form. It's entirely possible that such action is merely an attempt to make the song more personal for different minded or nurtured participants. People in the 2012 might need to sing different words than people in 1912, 1812, or 12. I am of the opinion that we need to embrace our classics, even in their original form, but we must also sing evolved forms of our classics so as to be closer to the message than we otherwise might be. We can have both and I think we should.

Stephanie goes on to explain that "brotherhood" and "men" were not terms meant for males alone and she does a good job of presenting this truth in a short amount of time (clearly she is better as being short-winded than I). Again, she's right but even though they may not have been chauvinistic terms they easily can be today (and have been in recent history for some sects) and since times, culture, communal experiences, and perspectives change we need to be able to make sure that we're doing what we can to communicate the original message of these works to people who are different from those who would have originally encountered the hymns. Now, the message may not be heard/received today the way it was originally if it were left in the same exact words. It depends on the involved parties. Changing up the lyrics can help with that in certain times and places. It can be a benefit to change lyrics in this fashion if our changing of lyrics can shed light on the fact that we are a people who know our culture and desire to communicate the gospel message as best we can within that culture (be it in evangelism or isolated worship). So why not go for it?*

Finally, Stephanie makes the case that, "...we keep to the original text of the Bible and of Christmas hymns." Here's the rub though; if we're going to commit to keeping the original texts then we all better start learning Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew and stand against English translations of the Bible. If we want to be really purist about this we shouldn't even have hymns that put scripture into English in their lyrics but rather we should only sing hymns that have scripture references in the original language. There is danger in changing the lyrics but I would argue there is as much, if not more, danger in being a purist about the original lyrics. I'm not trying to call Stephanie a purist here but a statement like the one she made can easily be embraced by such a mindset. If she is a purist I apologize for assuming her not to be one [insert wink].

I see Stephanie's concern, and it's a good one, but while we fight being hyper-sensitive to an ever-changing pluralistic society we have to keep in mind the reality of the historic cultures from which the vocabulary used in those works derived and remember that those were cultures filled with chauvinism and male dominance. The lyrics may not have been meant to be chauvinistic but they may very well be born of a chauvinistic culture and thus possess the DNA of that culture within them. Even if that's not true, many parts of our culture will assume that. We can't ebb and flow with every passing fancy of our current cultures but we have to speak the language and we have to convey the Gospel message as appropriately as we can. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to push the agenda of relevancy needing to be a top priority because I think focusing on relevancy itself is most often a damaging action that leads us away from truly doing our work as the Church.At the same time, there is a balance between knowing our history, the true meanings and intentions of those wonderful works of praise and being intimate with the message of the works as a different community with different vocabularies and nurturing as the ones in which those works were birthed. We want to do what we can to communicate the truth of Christ as clearly as possible, especially in liturgy.

So let us be creative! Let us compliment one another! Let's share our art and do what we must with it for the sake of Christ's ongoing work which happens through his body and bride known as the Church. Let's do cover songs and switch up the lyrics whether we're doing it with the works of John Mark McMillan or Heinrich Suso.

*I realize that many will take issue with the altering of a deceased artist's work and that would be a big reason to not tamper with such masterpeices. We wouldn't give the Mona Lisa highlights in her hair or put her in a Lady GaGa outfit after all. However, when it comes to communicating the message of the scriptures, the love of God, the story of Christ, we are at liberty to release ownership of our art to the community so that we own it as a unified body that transcends time and place. If we accept this, claiming that the message is more important than the artwork remaining in it's original condition (in other words, saying that the message is more sacred than the catalyst) then we are at liberty to make such changes.