06 December 2014

nativity: 8

Signs and Salvation.

One particular thread of this story takes its shape, as many stories do, a long time ago in a far and distant land. Although we cannot always go all the way to the very beginnings of this grand story, we do need to look back a long way in order to capture the true meaning of what has been passed on to us today. This piece calls us to step into the ancient city of Jerusalem – a long time before Christ was born.

Here we find the king of the southern nation of Judah, standing alone against the impending armies of Assyria. They had already poured over the nation's borders, but were yet unable to take the city of Jerusalem. Surrounding Zion, it stood there as a stronghold, kept by the promise of God that they would not be overcome by the foreign invaders. And there, in the middle of the city, alone in the palace, was one man – King Ahaz. This was his moment of decision, his pivotal stand in history. So far, he was floundering in the face of this crisis. He was not like his predecessor, Uzziah, who had stood firm in his kingship against the armies that would have destroyed Judah. Instead, Ahaz was presiding over a time of failure of faithfulness of God's people, and hope was struggling to stay alive.

As a second wave of invaders, with new resolve, came rushing across the border, the prophetic voice came to King Ahaz, assuring him that this conflict would not be decided by military might or political cleverness. This battle would rest upon the Lord's people to trust that he would accomplish what he had promised. We find this part of the story in Isaiah 7, where the prophet meets the king at the end of the Upper Pool, an aqueduct that was part of the survival plan for the impending siege on the city.

Those closest to the king wanted him to play politics, to make an alliance with those who were threatening the country – an appeasement. Even to the north, Israel and Ephraim had joined with the Assyrians, and the king's advisors told him that it was time to either join with them or die. Enter Isaiah, who emphatically reminds the king that this is not the path which Israel's God has made for his people. They are to find their security and salvation in him alone, not in their own military power or political gaming. The word of the Lord is that the surrounding nations are nothing more than smoldering stubs – their combined might would soon be stamped out. The issue is not one of politics, but of faith.

In his attempt to persuade Ahaz to do nothing (politically), Isaiah instructs him to ask the Lord for a sign – to look heavenward and see that God is indeed in this moment: Ask for his assurance, to know that the words of the prophet are true. But Ahaz will not do this, claiming that he will not put the Lord to the test. He hides behind religious-sounding language, appearing to understand the stories of Israel. His piety is a politician's show, and God calls him on this and provides a sign even in the face of Ahaz's failed trust. The sign is that a virgin will conceive and give birth to a special child (we have no reason to think that this prediction has anything other than 'natural' means of conception in mind). This child would be special, not because of his mother's circumstances, but because he will be the renewal of David's kingship in Israel – he will be (read on through Isaiah 9) known as Mighty God.

This child will be born into humble circumstances, sharing in the poverty of his people. But, he will rise to great prominence and power, and enact the dominion and dynasty of Israel's covenant and God's kingdom.

Unfortunately this sign does nothing for Ahaz, who continues on with his political gaming, all the way to disaster. He quickly discovered that some people simply will not be appeased, and some enemies are not to be trifled with. He grabs the tiger by the tail and pays the consequences. Nevertheless, God remained true to his word, and to the sign which he gave through Isaiah. He kept a remnant of his people and raised up other kings before Israel finally succumbed to destruction and exile, where they would remain for quite some time.

Into this story Matthew casts the hope for the people of God. He introduces a righteous man named Joseph, who was devout and upright and steadfast in the story of Israel – like his predecessor Ahaz. He was respected and well-known, and thrown into a story of disgrace and shame. Lying in bed that one night it the angel of the Lord who reminds him of the sign that was given to the people of God. Our very-familiar thought of virgin conception must have been overwhelming the first time he had to consider Mary's circumstance. In realizing that God's fulfillment of his promises is always greater than our expectation, Joseph remembers the significance of salvation that comes from this God-given sign, and the importance of trusting in the God who spoke it.

He embraces the story, and Matthew wishes for us to embrace the magnitude of what is happening. This is why he recalls the ancient words spoken by the Upper Pool in Jerusalem's time of distress – the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel (which means 'God with us').

This is more than a nice religious bumper sticker or kitschy holiday art pointing us to the interestingness of Jesus' birth. This is the long-awaited sign from heaven, given to a people in great distress and uncertainty, that God would be faithful to this promises – he will guide and guard his people. Centuries of reading Isaiah never quite expected this child to be divine (at least, not in this sense). But this is the work of God in the world doing incredibly more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.

This child is Emmanuel. God with us. And this is how God came to be with us, breaking heaven into earth in a strange and powerful new way. This God with us enables us to approach the throne of God with great boldness, accepting the forgiveness of sins, and become children of God ourselves. The sign that has come has become the salvation of the world.

23 June 2014

of fads and harvest

There is a point in life where one is probably taken in to some sort of fad or trend - one which connects us to some larger culture around us.  For certain people, keeping up with trends is a way of life, something that they do naturally and as a part of their daily routine.  For others, fads are ridiculous and are to be avoided at all costs.  (Here is a catalog of fads found online)

I might suppose that most people aren't too caught up in fads and trends (at least, not consciously), but that every now and then something simultaneously catches our attention and a wider popularity.  And off we go.

Although I think technological gadgetry is quite magical and cool, and I am a self-diagnosed bibliophile, I can honestly say that I'm not really a trendy sort of a person.  I don't rush to the movies just because everyone else tells me to; as a rule, I ignore the "best sellers" that greet you in stacks at the front of the bookstore; and I am quite leery when it comes to trends within the church, mostly out of a conviction that marketing and gospel can quickly be at odds with one another.  So, I get a bit concerned when fads masquerade as spiritual moments and victories, all of which are (by their own devices) short-lived, leaving little impact in their wake.  The Christian entertainment industry seems to be the primary driver of these sorts of fads in our current culture, though pastors and other church leaders have certainly perpetuated the problem.

So, what am I saying?  Do I have a problem with The Passion of the Christ, Fireproof, God's Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, Left Behind(s) etc?  Well, yes I do and no I do not.  It is not so much that I have a problem with Christian content being made into movies for either artistic or entertainment purposes, but these happen to be examples of Christian marketing outpacing the initial spiritual statement that was being made.  We poured out our collective souls during The Passion, made our marriages Fireproof, made our intellectual assertion that God Is Not Dead, and proved that Heaven Is for Real, all while telling everyone how they should not be Left Behind.  It seems that we have made quite the rounds in the Christian entertainment industry, yet very little (perhaps we might make the case that nothing) has changed as a result.

My point is that we have created these great marketing-based movements around a Christianized idea, which has relegated the core of the gospel to a fad.  And the gospel is no fad.  It is not something to be made hip for a while and then put away in some box of memories.  The gospel is dynamic and life-changing, and should be a foolishness that confounds the clever tricks of worldly wisdom.

I am confronted with one simple argument: Yes, but aren't we at least planting seeds?  What is the harm in placing the Christian message into the world?  To the latter, nothing - until it falls prey to the here-today-gone-tomorrowism of fads.  To the first question, aren't we setting the bar rather low for the power of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ?  It seems that there is a great amount of time, energy and resources given to the lowest-common-denominator of expectation here, and perhaps is the root of why our evangelicalism has become so shallow.  In other words, we do not have because we do not ask (Jas. 4:2), here applied to the dynamic and transformative power of God.  We do not truly experience God in our evangelicalism because we have not truly asked for his presence - we are aiming for the lowest level instead of living by faith.

Furthermore, I wonder about this notion of planting seeds, which again speaks to the lowest-common-demoniator of the gospel.  I fear that it has become commonplace for evangelicals to settle with planting seeds because we simply do not wish to do any more for the gospel than to throw money or sermons or books and film at our surrounding culture and call it a day.  This is the path of least resistance and least commitment, and we cover our lack of missional service with the spiritualized phrase of planting seeds.  Interestingly, Jesus told us that "the harvest is plentiful, but the  workers are few" (Mt. 9).  While we are supposed to be asking the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers to gather in the fields, we have instead decided that we needed to plant more seeds on top of the readied fields (because we know what our culture needs more than the Lord of the harvest).

Instead of seeing our cultural engagement as planting seeds, perhaps we should work at bringing in the prepared harvest.  There are many other spiritual and religious options that are not holding back from drawing people to themselves, and yet evangelicalism is so worried that this work is beyond what we can (or should) be doing.  This makes certain sense, if indeed we have surrendered our faith in the power of the gospel to transform.

In the end, this post is not a blanket dismissal of the church's engagement with culture that comes through the means of media.  I find that some of it is good and profitable for its various purposes, and there are many people who produce such things with sincere and humble hearts (and there are those who are simply making a profit for the sake of making a profit, which is exploiting Christian belief for monetary gain, but that can be addressed another time ... ).  My point is that we as a church ought to keep things in their rightful place, whether it is a piece of Christian entertainment, regardless of its value of edification, or our vocation as the people of God who hear his voice calling us to the fields ready for harvest.

23 May 2014

worship in observance

So that I might not be misunderstood, let me say at the outright that I believe worship is a living sacrifice, and that discipleship is an endeavor of active participation.  The comments that follow are not to discourage either of these notions.  Simply stated, I have increasingly come to realize that there is more to our worship than the things that we are doing - saying, singing, swaying.  There are moments that come to us, in some seasons frequently and at other times sparingly, when we have an opportunity to embrace a true worship of our Creator simply because we were aware of the moment.

If you have come to this you have undoubtedly felt an overwhelming presence - a warming of the heart, perhaps - in which an experience became more than the sum of its parts.  A recent moment for me was watching my seven-year-old at her school's spring concert-show.  Watching her, along with other children sing and dance for the joy of doing so - and since this is a Christian school, they were songs of praise - ushered in a moment where I felt as though I was truly thankful and blessed.  I think this comes to us more as we learn how to soak up life more than speed through life, as we learn to treasure more than we check off one experience to start searching for the next.  There is wisdom and beauty in this, for it is a life that is increasingly open to the still small voice of the presence.

Added to this, I have noticed for some time that I am touched when I watch congregations of people worship.  Perhaps some of this is from my experience of being one of the 'up-front' people for much of my church life, as part of the music or pastoral ministries.  There is a joy and an awe that most people never experience - one that I consider a blessing to myself - which is watching the Spirit of God move within a body of believers who together are watching heavenward.  And there is worship in the observance, if we have eyes to see and ears to hears what the Spirit is saying to his own.

I have not spoken in tongues, and my worship is seldom a charismatic experience, in the common use of the word.  But I have heard the voice of heaven speak in my heart and have been moved the very real presence of the living God through the stillness of my heart when I am not so much caught up in the responsibilities of worship as the watchfulness of the moving Spirit.  I do not discount these other endeavors, but seek only to encourage those who seek God to become still and expectant of these moments that take us far beyond ourselves and into his presence.  He will not force us to pause over them, for that is not his way.  But we will be utterly transformed if we allow ourselves to linger in that presence for its few fleeting moments, tasting and seeing.

12 May 2014

a brief reflection on cheap grace

see D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (chs. 1-4)

“In the last resort, what we want to know is not, what would this or that man, or this or that Church, have of us, but what Jesus Christ himself wants from us.” These words are appropriate introductory remarks on the subject of discipleship. There are many competing voices in the modern church, each claiming correct understanding of the gospel. This has become familiar and commonplace in American evangelicalism, perhaps to the point where we have allowed a need-for-novelty to shape the identity and work of the church more than Jesus himself. Yet, at the end of it all we must remember that we are called to Christ himself, which is a journey that walks through sacrifice and surrender. In other words, the true nature of discipleship - the kind to which Bonhoeffer speaks - is necessarily separated from spiritualities that are designed to feed our own ideas of accomplishment and identity.

This is where the idea of cheap grace enters - namely, that we would use the gospel as a means of affirming our own decisions of self-worth. Cheap grace both initiates and is perpetuated by various layers of tradition, theology and doctrine that, in reality, keep us from experiencing the unsettlingly dynamic presence of Christ. Instead, Jesus has been reduced to a caricature of our own ideas of morality and virtue; the Son of God is viewed as a non-threatening projection of our own ideals for humanity. As a result of viewing Christ through the lens of cheap grace, believers today are left uninspired and unchanged, for they have not encountered the powerful presence of holiness that is found in the incarnated Lord.

Perhaps there are two opposite errors in correcting this rather benign approach to Jesus. The first is to make Jesus even more approachable still, a savior-friend whose entire existence rests upon a sentimental relationship with the individual. Here is an all-affirming Jesus that seeks to heap blessings upon his own without asking for anything in return. The second is to make a reemphasis on the holiness of the Son of God that become doctrinally overbearing, which leads to an unknowable God and an inapproachable Jesus. This results in a judgmental and condemning priest who never leaves the sanctity of the temple.

Neither of these approaches work because, as is foundational to Bonhoeffer’s words on grace, the real person of Jesus is divine holiness made accessible through the incarnation. This leads to an experience of discipleship that is both unsettling and edifying throughout. The cost of discipleship is the surrender of one’s life to the call to follow Christ. “The cross is laid on every Christian.” The natural human difficulties with a surrender-all discipleship is, in reality, a problem with Jesus - it is Christ that we choose to follow or reject.

Until the church can reclaim the presence of Jesus as he comes to us through the Spirit and the Word, we will continue to play around with the novelties of worship and discipleship programs, missing out on the transformative power of the risen Christ. The need for a renewed vigor in biblical discipleship is evidenced in the current state of our evangelicalism. We have created a more comprehensive church subculture than human history has ever seen, yet the shallowing of American Christianity is increasingly problematic. We have access to more Bibles, sermons, services and studies than ever before in the history of the world, and yet committed disciples have become difficult to find - leaving our culture to spiritual rot and decay as a result.

It appears that evangelicalism has done everything to be Christian except to die to Christ. This is a sad reality, and a powerful challenge for the church. However, the discipleship of which Bonhoeffer speaks is indeed happening in some parts of the world. This is our great encouragement and, hopefully, our inspiration to join with the church of Christ in the work that brings all people closer to his presence.

04 May 2014

preparing disciples for discipleship

It is a simple instruction: Therefore go and make disciples.  And the church has been issued a mandate for its work.  Depending on where and when you look, the church has done better or worse in accomplishing this throughout its two-thousand-plus year history.  For the most part, modern evangelicalism is on the downswing of execution, though there have been many ongoing efforts to reclaim this part of our identity.

In my own ministry I have struggled with the challenges of Christian discipleship.  There are, of course, the typical frustrations - the spiritual inertia of people who simply aren't that interested in a more committed discipleship, the difficulties that arise when trying to keep people engaged with spiritual growth, and so on.  On many levels it has felt as though there was no way of breaking through to a church that saw genuine discipleship.  This frustration has been compounded by a simple observation - these people want to grow in their discipleship.  So, what's the problem?

I admit that this can be an oversimplified situation, for we could easily say that those who want to grow will engage in the process of growth.  But that is like saying that everyone who wants to diet and exercise will simply do it without distraction or set back.  Or, that everyone who wants to give up smoking, drugs or alcohol can simply make the choice and walk in a different direction.  Some actually can do these things, but most cannot.  It is more complicated that that.

One aspect that I see among those in my context is that they have not been adequately prepared for the demands of discipleship.  Ours is a congregation that was flourishing in many ways just ten-to-fifteen years ago, but which had a major breakdown and implosion that started about two years before I came to town (and it has continued to settle down in four of the five years which I have been here).  When examining the spiritual state of this congregation I see a people who desire to be disciples of Jesus, but who have struggled with getting off the ground in many respects.  My conclusion is that they have not been introduced to the demands of discipleship.

Sure, many of our current folks participated in the days when there was a lot of people and a lot of activity.  They were part of the 'good-old-days' when our congregation had a well-established name for itself in the community and the denomination.  But if we have arrived at this point in time, without an understanding of what it means to grow as a disciple, then what was going on in this previous era of our church?

I believe that many (if not most) of our folks were sold a Christianity that was filled with what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.  Somewhere along the way, between building a 'successful church' and maintaining one, the demands of the gospel were largely forgotten.  This directly resulted in the many divisions and internal arguing that plagued this congregation, but which also kept individuals from looking forward to the possibilities of growing in the faith.  Even though our specific circumstances might be unique, I am afraid to say that the shallowing of discipleship in the name of 'successful churches' is widespread in our modern evangelicalism.

Having come to this realization, the next step has been to prepare disciples for discipleship.  What does this entail?  Well, that depends on the individual.  Some of our folks need to unlearn their previous conceptions of what a church ought to be, while others have simply never been introduced to the concept of discipleship (as though the Christian faith could exist without it).  This congregation is looking for a demonstration of God's love, the realization that it will be a life-demanding challenge, and the assurance that it will be worth the journey.

Of course, this is all part of the process of knowing your community of faith and working to make people more committed disciples of Jesus from the place where they are.  On that end, this is far from a revolutionary thought.  However, identifying and removing these barriers are vital to making a highway in the wilderness on which our God will come and meet with us.