08 November 2017

a thought regarding culpability

Everything is meaningless!
(Ecclesiastes 1:2)

The worldview of the Teacher is framed by the assertion that, "Everything is meaningless." He makes this statement at both the beginning and the end of his thoughts on life. We are challenged in our English translations on the word hebel, which at one time was given as "vanity" but now is here translated "meaningless" (NIV; while NET does well with "futile"). The expression itself is pointing to the absurdity of it all, and it is a statement of frustration with everything that he sees: everything that happens under the sun. We could use modern slang to convey this, ranging from the sanitary to the vulgar.

At the end of the day, this Teacher has observed and engaged life. He has wrestled with it, been knocked down by it, confused by it, and is now over it. He sees that the endless cycles of nature – the movement of sun and moon, wind and rivers – are so constant that the world is void of that which he may regard as novel or unique. It has become rubbish to him. All of this is worthless and empty. And so, he begins his greatest inquiry into life itself with his exasperation: Everything is HEBEL!

Most of us who live in the digital age have quickly discovered this reality itself, without ever having to leave our screens. At first we thought that this was a great novelty and tool for human advancement. And yet, we know that the same cycles of life repeat themselves, leaving us constantly scrolling and clicking and tapping for something that can hold our attention. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun, or perhaps we have learned to appreciate the wonder of nature in the first place.

The world has closed in on most of our imagination, though there are still those who will seek physical, emotional, and spiritual life in a virtual world. The imaginary world we foster in this virtual reality moves us in our physical world as well. This is no simple tirade against virtual content, but rather a consideration of our lives as they interact with increasingly intense experiences "outside of ourselves." But do we ever have a personal experience that can be completely "outside of ourselves" as though we are left unaffected? I am no doctor of psychologist, so I cannot speak to the specifics of the mental or biological nature of this issue. But I am a theologian, and it is undeniable that every experience in our lives affects our spirits.

So, I look at this fascination with a pornographic culture that has exploded to extreme levels since the Western world got online, and the simple connections to immoral behaviors in the physical world, many of which greatly damage others. And I see a large interest in violent, murderous, and grotesque entertainment found in many virtual reality games, movies, and television shows, and the simple connections to violent behavior in the physical world.

There are many voices who still insist that these connections do not exist, either for pointing in other directions or finding blame on a case-by-case basis. And yet, when tragedy and violence happen in our world, there is mass confusion in the society as everyone searches for culpability. The answers are settled on rather quickly, and the solutions come in rapid succession. And yet, as these voices from our culture can point to every jot-and-tittle of what they think ought to change in others, they so easily miss very significant factors right in front of them.

Today, the Hollywood elite mock the faith of those who were in church as a cowardly madman walked in and began shooting. And yet, their own sub-culture is struggling to deal with the sexual violence that apparently has been widespread for many years. Those who have no room for faith and morality in their lives have no basis for making judgments on the prayers of believers. Even before they have emerged from the public release of their debauchery these figures laugh at those whose faith is leading them to a life of more integrity. The Hollywood elite do not understand this, for they have been rolling around in such filth for years, celebrating it in their productions and awarding themselves for their depravity. Hebel!

And so, the discussions of culpability stand at the forefront of our national discussion. Politicians want to blame each other, Twitter celebrities seem to be in a race to see who can be the most vulgar and asinine in their statements, so-called news channels work to advance whatever narrative is most profitable for today, and NFL players are still kneeling for reasons they themselves are yet to understand. The axiom, a conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking comes into play here: when we don't want to deal with it anymore, blame society as a whole whenever bad things happen.

There are two main problems here: first, this would necessarily including the victims of violence, since they are part of society; second, there are many within society who choose not to participate in this so-called culture of violence and pornography, and whose lives are (in one way or another) working to bring an end to it. But let's remember, in the midst of the voices that cry No More! the ones who hold our society's microphones laugh, ridicule, mock, and dismiss our concerns. In fact, any objection to what is vulgar and shocking today will find the boundaries pushed by someone else tomorrow. And, therein lies the culpability.

Admittedly, not every congregation gets it. But, the church is a place of nonviolence, and the gospel is a message of peace and love and hope and reconciliation. Those who walk with Jesus along this path are not participating with the culture of violence that is supposedly producing our tragedies. Then again, there are many who claim for themselves the mantle of 'Christian' who are perfectly happy to indulge themselves in grotesque, violent, pornographic, immoral filth set before them as entertainment. And since I rarely hear of someone binge-reading their Bible, I'm guessing there is more time spent engaging the depravity than in feasting on the Word. And to say that one's spirit is unaffected by this is incredibly foolish. Such a faith is hebel!

When concerns are raised regarding the morality of a particular television program or film or virtual reality game of some sort, the larger culture typically laughs it off. This is true even within the American church today, where Christian behavior is nearly indistinguishable from worldly behavior. And then the scenarios that once existed on screen become a horrific reality that splatters across our headlines, and the head-scratching cycle begins again. Hebel!

Our situation is simply the front-end message of the gospel: we have a moral problem. Before we rush to blame guns, games, movies, drugs, education, laws, or anything else, it must be acknowledged that humanity's brokenness is the cause for the evils we perpetuate to one another. This is a simple answer, but it is the core of what we need to recognize. The solution is just as simple, though not particularly easy, especially for those so entwined in the world's behavior. The key phrase here is repentance, which will make many roll their eyes at the word's very sound. The key behavior associated with this word is to turn from one course of action or direction, in favor of another. In this case, it would be turning from the immorality and violence in order to walk towards Christ.

For those who are already part of the church this is of paramount importance: It is time to stop trying to reconcile the depravity of our human nature with the gospel. Jesus did not come to make peace with sin and death, but to conquer it. It makes no sense for us to stand in the place of his victory while continuing to engage with the darkness. It is time to stop allowing the grotesque to defile our God-given homes; it is time to stop soiling the wedding clothes of the Lamb's Bride with the disgusting muck of immorality. For that is Hebel while the fullness of life still awaits us in our Creator's world – indeed, he himself has shown us the way to a life more abundant.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

06 November 2017

to the one who has an ear

"I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble and suffering, but take courage — I have conquered the world." (Jesus, recorded in John 16:33)

Tragedy once again dominates our headlines. Such news is becoming too common for us, as the cultural hysteria seems to confirm. There are those who, in a rush to push their political agendas, trample over the victims in their anger-driven vitriol. And then there are those who will be "shocked" by the news, but will quickly move about their day as though nothing was really going on.

One Christian writer recently connected the divisions and animosity towards one another to the Twitter habits of President Trump. A secular commentator referred to America's "culture of violence" as the reason for mass shootings. And a hundred more voices are already buzzing about the lack of gun control as the primary cause for violence in our country.

I am looking for the reassuring voices that echo the words of Christ: take courage – I have conquered the world. My present post is not directed to those who stand outside of the kingdom of God, who do not consider themselves serious disciples of Jesus. This one is for the church, and for one very good reason: there are matters of faith that those who are not receptive to the Spirit will not understand. When Jesus said, "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13), he was speaking about the ability to hear and understand his message. And coming to understand and accept the gospel — every part of it — is difficult and demanding. Living in the gospel is impossible without the presence of the Spirit, and so is having a mind to understand it.

My concern for the church in this hour is that we are looking at tragedies, especially acts of terrorism against the gathered assemblies of believers in our country, and we are too quick to follow worldly cues in searching for answers. At this point, I should make it clear that we will now have to further limit our discussion to the church in America, as we are so unaccustomed to having our churches come under such attack. Our dialogue must be limited here, because there are believers throughout the world who suffer tremendous tragedy and horrific evil as an ongoing reality of their commitment to Christ. In such places, the church is doing a tremendous work and the work of the Spirit is active and vibrant, and they never get stuck on the question of Why us?

These suffering believers throughout the world already know the problem and the answer: Jesus.

For many years I have heard pastors and church leaders talk about the potential for backlash and violence that can come upon their congregations with a smug, "Well, if we are attacked then we must be doing something right." That overconfidence is quickly reduced to rubble at the slightest sign of trouble, and it is utter theological chaos when a bona fide tragedy arrives. It seems to me, in the words of our songwriting friend, Rich, that "we are not as strong as we think we are."

We say that a person's faith commitment will be evident in the things that they say and do (see Matthew 15:11). We believe that if a person is devoted to the gospel that this will have an effect on their thoughts, their words, their behavior. We say that prayer is essential to the life of the Christian, and that it will form us into the believers Christ has called us to be, and that this will give us the words of Spirit when they are needed most. These are central convictions of spiritual growth and maturity in the faith, and yet so many things are said that do not sound like the gospel.

Perhaps it is true that we are not called to judge anyone for their words or behavior. This is reserved for Almighty God. But perhaps there is enough in scripture to show us that we are indeed called to be fruit inspectors, those who can hear and evaluate one another and speak in ways that sharpen the sword of truth in our lives. Perhaps this means that we can read and hear responses to evil that comes against the Church and know whether the Spirit is present or not.

My current concern is that there are many churchgoers who do not study the Word of truth, do not pray and listen to the Spirit, and are thus sharing a belief that is shaped more by the world than by Christ, and that such messages are readily accepted by others who cannot evaluate from the Word or Spirit.

How can I know these things?

If you believe that hatred is a byproduct of the election of a particular president, then you have not understood the gospel.

If you think that abolishing firearms will put an end to violence (or take a dramatic step in that direction), then you have misunderstood the gospel.

If you consider a church community to be inherently at fault for an act of terrorism against them, then you most likely have not comprehended the gospel.

Specifically to that last point: let me quickly say that I understand that certain religious groups and organizations can say or do things that cause difficulty for themselves. But at no point does this provide justification for shootings and acts of hatred to this degree. To those who suffer as a result of their faith, for the work they are doing to live out the gospel in environments hostile to the message of Christ, again I submit that this is not justification for the work of evil to come upon them. When we consider the "culture of violence" that so many wish to cite, it is important to note that the gospel — by its very nature — works to strip all violence of its power, through the sacrificial service of the Lamb, to be followed by each of his followers. For these reasons, I submit that my last point stands, for there is no justification, even within the gospel, for such evil to come upon the church. What we have instead, is a reason for those who follow Jesus to know that such things will occur.

The promise that Christ gives to his disciples is that he has conquered the world, and evil's fury will not have the final word. In the past number of years those who have modeled this as believers — the demonstration of faith to degrees more shocking than the violence they faced — were those in the Amish community near Nickel Mines in 2006. For so many churchgoers who would consider the Amish faith to be no more than a humorous novelty, when life became deadly serious it was them who showed us the power of the gospel in acts of love and forgiveness. And they showed us courage to walk forward in their faith, with the eyes of the world upon them, unhindered in their devotion.

Such a contrast to the blaming and shaming and shouting that dominates our mainstream culture so much that it dictates the way in which most churchgoers will even begin to process such tragic events. And therein lies the greater tragedy of all, perhaps the very reason why our nation rages in this hour: we have ignored the Spirit's leading, and have now lost our ability to hear.

I mean, just listen to everything that is being said from within the church today ...

28 March 2017

keys and the kingdom: discipleship and a buddhist teenager

I remember once when I was in graduate school at Denver Seminary, taking a course on religious pluralism, one of our assignments was to attend and observe a religious service of a non-Christian practice and make our evaluation and assessment of the experience. We were given a good amount of freedom in the parameters of this project, so our small class of about fifteen people scattered ourselves across the metro to a variety of religious contexts. I found myself at a Buddhist "temple" for a weekly meditation gathering, sitting with a handful of other curious men and women in a row of chairs set up on the parameter of the gathered Buddhist faithful. It was an interesting experience, and I experienced more spiritual light and darkness conflict than I anticipated.

One particular piece that remains with me in regular thought was a special ceremony that took place toward the end of gathering. The temple was welcoming a new member into their official ranks. On this particular day it was a teenage young man who had shown himself committed to the life of that community. I do not remember most of what was said to him by the elder gentleman who was leading the gathering, but what I have not forgotten is the key. As part of his formal welcoming into the group he was handed a key to the main doors of the center (they were meeting in a former church building). As he was given his key he was told: This building is for you; it is for your use in meditation and growth. Come here whenever you need to. Bring your friends and your family to this place, and show them the way that you have learned.

Having been a part of the Christian church since birth, I can say that this sort of mentality is incredibly rare in American evangelicalism. I have seen that most churches guard their keys, many with great fervor, and restrict access to the physical space for a whole host of reasons. Even in churches where every adult member has a key to the building, it is still rare that this should be given over to a teenager (or that a teenager might be considered a full-fledged member in the first place).

I suppose this comes down to being an issue of discipleship: What is the goal of Christian growth, anyway? In this Buddhist temple it was part of the spiritual culture that this young man, regardless of his age, understood the responsibilities of participating in this community. And with those responsibilities came a charge of evangelism and discipleship – bring others and show them. This was clearly an expectation of the journey of meditation and enlightenment, and here was someone coming into his own along the journey. Why would we in the church be so terrified of what might happen if we entrusted our teenagers in the same regard?

In his fantastic book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Thomas Bergler says: "Adolescent Christians don't expect to be adults for a long time, so they don't particularly care if their Christianity prepares them for adulthood. They tend to be much more aware of their religious 'rights' than their religious responsibilities" (14–15). I think that sums it up quite nicely, and sheds a particularly bright light on the lack of genuine discipleship within the average American church today.

Many times, when I have relayed my experience of watching this young man receive his key to the temple – in a serious and ceremonial way – I am met with some form of admiration: Wow, they are serious about this. Indeed, they are. Or, perhaps we are not. While it might be a stretch to give out keys to the teenagers, why are we still battling over who among the adults receives keys to the building? (Or, what about every nook and cranny in the building: how many locks does your church kitchen have?)

Rick Bundschuh, teaching pastor at Kauai Christian Fellowship in Hawaii, once wrote of when their church community had built a new campus and decided to give everyone a new key that would open every door in the building (!!!). Yes, this was difficult for some of the congregation to swallow, and I have shared this with a number of pastors and church leaders over the past few years, none of whom have thought it was a good or appropriate idea for their own churches (to be fair, about half have indicated that it would be great if they felt as though their group was ready for this.) But there again we see the problem: are we discipling men and women (and children) into maturing believers who are ready for the responsibilities of faithfulness?

Bundschuh says of their experience: "And while we have had a few bumps along the way (just how did those high school kids get a copy of the key anyhow?), the place is a beehive of activity day and night with people doing the very things that we had hoped they would do. I think people in the real estate business call it 'pride of ownership'" (Don't Rock the Boat, Capsize It, 80).

So, there it is – a short little lesson on discipleship that I found at a Buddhist temple. And I think it has important implications for the American church today. It's amazing what can be discovered by handing one little key to another.

24 March 2017

just a little bit more

I'm up later than I probably ought to be, but finding some entertainment in watching reruns of a once-popular sitcom. It's not edgy or provocative, which makes it a somewhat pleasant choice for late night hours of relaxation. But what I've noticed throughout the night is that I keep muting the sound whenever a round of commercials comes along. The reason is because this particular station has decided to advertise some of its other programming, which does not really "match" the level of entertainment of the show I'm watching. So, the network has brought me to its channel by broadcasting a program that appeals to a certain level of entertainment value, and then pushes me to watch programming that is edgier in its content.

Now, one could insert a rant about how television (and every other form of media) isn't what it used to be, and one would be right. But I'm already aware of this and navigate it every day without too much difficulty. This is probably true for many people who are mindful of such standards, aside from those who have simply given in to the assumption that accepting the vulgarity of our cultural trends is the only way to engage in modern artistic and entertainment options.

This is the beckoning call of the world around me: to take one step closer each day. Our culture did not change overnight, and what is now considered provocative was once thought of as offensive and will soon be regarded as commonplace. This is the erosion of our selves, what C. S. Lewis called the abolition of man, and it happens just the like geological world around us – one grain of sand at a time. Scientists say that the formation of the Grand Canyon began about 14 million years ago, through the constant flowing and cutting of the Colorado River through the rock. Give me just a little bit more, the river speaks to the earth as it cuts ever deeper into the ground.

Modern resistance to cultural erosion seems to be little in our world today, perhaps indicating a complete surrender. When I first started sketching these thoughts, the live-action Beauty and the Beast was preparing for its release. As it comes to theaters around the country there is a dust up of concern regarding a blatant reference to homosexuality in the film, which would be a first for a Disney production. All-too-quickly these concerns were cast as narrow-minded, over-reactive, extremist positions. And even many within the church were content with admitting that it wasn't much of a focus in the movie, and it could easily be overlooked. Give me just a little bit more...

Another day, another step. And even those who think that such concession will bring about appeasement from those who push progressive agenda cannot look at our most recent social history and admit this has ever been the case. Erosion does not stop with this layer, but rather digs down to the next one. Just a little bit more if you want to be a part of our world.

This is not a new problem for the church, but one that is as old as the church itself. There has always been a tension between believers and their surrounding culture. Our scripture speaks quite directly to this very thing: to those who are seeking to accommodate their faith to the voices of culture who ask for just a little bit more, the voice from heaven cries, "Come out of her, my people" (Revelation 18:4; Jeremiah 54:45).

One voice calls me to conformity, another voice calls me to separation. The two cannot be reconciled. Why, then, do we think that we can live in such a way as to harmonize the ethics of the kingdom with the ethics of the world? Why do we believe that giving just a little bit here and there will not affect our commitment to faith? Why are we so sure of these things when our very Creator tells us that this is not true?

And yet, the erosion continues. We will say that it is the "cost of doing business" in our world today, that we must learn to live with things that don't share our values. I wonder if this cost of cultural inclusion has replaced the cost of the Cross. Our modern Christianity is so quick to surrender to just one more step toward the world, but so resistant to take one more step towards Christlikeness. And that is all that we need to see to understand the state of the church in America today.

"You know, it's not that much ..." is part of the modern creed that undermines kingdom faithfulness in our world.

16 February 2017

soft hearts and thick skin

For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.

1 John 3:11


I remember once being told that the work of pastoring is simple: preach the word and love the people. Some might say this is an oversimplification, but there is merit in understanding these two basic tenets of the vocation. Of course, as St Francis would like to remind us, preaching the word is much more than that which we do on Sunday mornings. In the role of church ministry the ways and means of gospel proclamation are everywhere and in everything. Still, I continue to be startled by the amount of pastors who shirk their responsibility to be proclaimers of the gospel, in both word and deed.

And then there is the other half of our simple statement: love the people. It should be no surprise that this contains numerous challenges as well. People can often present themselves as unloveable, and the irritations and frustrations that accompany close relationships – especially ones defined by spiritual endeavor – quickly disrupt our ability to act and respond in ways of love. This is the essence of people trying to work out their salvation, and the place of the pastor is heavily affected by such relationship dynamics.

Now, before I get too far on this, let me say that I have no interest in speaking of the pastoral vocation in grandiose terms, whereby you are supposed to think of the minister as a super saint who is able to do such an amazing work in spite of the overwhelming burdens of the task. There are plenty of sources that speak in this manner, and they are almost unequivocally wrong. The role of pastor is a unique endeavor that requires a certain temperament and skill set, but so is every other vocation in the world. The aim here is to present an observation of the relationship dynamics of the church from someone who spends their time in constant evaluation of the community of saints. For that matter, I might be wrong in how I understand the church. However, there might be merit from my reflected experiences.

Those who lead in the church, pastorally or otherwise, know well that that there is no shortage of hurt and/or angry people who make the work of ministry challenging and difficult. Speaking from the role of a pastor, these realities have a tendency to make one callous to the task – to treat this vocation with little sentiment or enthusiasm, moving from one appointment to the next and one Sunday to the next. But this is never in the work that Christ has given to the church, and it should not give shape to the way leadership works in a congregation. I think that the primary reason for this callousing is the amount of times that impassioned effort yields apathy in the pew. And there is no place where this has a more profound effect than in the realm of loving people.

There seems to be a difficult balance in the Christian life between having soft hearts and thick skin. If you hang around people for long enough, especially in the church community, you will discover that those to whom you have opened your heart will say or do something that makes you wish you had instead only shown them your thick skin. There are people who take advantage of you, either consciously or unconsciously, and the human tendency is to allow the hurting heart to become callous in order to avoid such pain in the future. But in this hardening of our hearts we lose the mandate to love our neighbor as ourselves, and thus we become our own hindrance to the gospel's work in and through us.

Yes, we want to be protected from pain, but this is simply impossible in genuine and meaningful relationships. Callous hearts close others out and prohibits love from having its effect. The only defense against this is having a heart that has been born of God. A heart such as this will continue to break – perhaps even more than before – but it will break in the same rhythm as the Creator, who alone can give healing comfort. It is from this assurance that we can have the kind of thick skin that enables us to experience incredibly hurtful things in this life and continue forward. For our worth is not found in what others think about us, or what value our world stamps upon us, but in the assurance of our heavenly Father, who fills us with an indescribable peace.

To be a part of this work, in official and unofficial roles alike, requires that we have soft hearts and thick skin. Otherwise we will be trampled and needled into a life that ceases to be connected to our Father's heart, and we will fail in our attempts to love, which is the very essence of who we are and what we have been created to be. For to love God and others is the highest calling and the greatest fulfillment we can find.