16 February 2017
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.
15 December 2016
In 2015 we had the infamous war on Starbucks because they did not print "Merry Christmas" on their paper coffee cups, which we were supposed to believe was an anti-Christmas (therefore anti-Christ) assault on the millions of Americans who simply wanted get their $8 sugar-caffiene fix. (Oh, the plight of the affluent!) Of course, none of this narrative was true to the intentions or actions of Starbucks, and it wasn't too long before those greatly offended were able to return to their mocha and frappe lifestyles, even if they had to wait for the non-seasonal cups to return – the ones with the logo based upon Nordic mythology, which is must less-offensive to Christians than the ommission of a specific holiday phrase.
Perhaps it is only in the particular circles in which I run, but 2016 seems to have a lot of jabbing and condemning of Christmas music. Over the past few weeks I have seen a good number of articles (some more serious than others) and social media commentary on how terrible certain Christmas songs are that we should dump, or even ban their existence. Now, we've all enjoyed reading those lists that poke fun at some of the more campy holiday songs that are mostly ridiculous, even though we all know someone who will defend the likes of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" to the bitter end. My concern isn't for the playing-around, but with what appear to be more serious attempts to chide certain Christmas music on moral or theological grounds.
(If only we were this adamant when it came to our worship music!)
Not every holiday song (Christmas-themed or not) has the best message, or the most moral content. Some songs are not as well-crafted musically or lyrically as others, and there is always the great variable of personal preference. These are all fair game for discussion. But the cultural and theological discussions are going to need to be dialed back just a bit, because the church ought to be about more than manufactured irritation.
There have been a handful of songs that are drawing the ire of would-be social commentators this year (some not for the first time), but I will limit my push-back to just two of them. First is the classic "Baby, It's Cold Outside (1944)." Over the past few years this song has raised a nod of suspicion, driven mostly by the mainstream political-correctness crowd who claim that this song tramples on consenting relationships, the allusion to a date-rape drug, or both. This is the result of a culture that has become so enamoured with its own significance that it has lost a sense of its own history, not to mention its inability to read and understand the plain meaning of lyrics.
First, this song is from 1944 New York City, a place much different than today, when the social scene was filled with entertainment-types hosting parties in their high-rise apartments. To this, folks would often perform for their guests (or have entertainment provided), giving rise to a number of good songs over the years. One such case was "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which was composed and initially performed by husband-and-wife, and gained instant popularity. Thus, the phrases and concepts are bound to that time period and should not have our modern behavior superimposed on top of them. For a woman (even girlfriend or fiance) to spend the night at her suitor's home was still culturally frowned upon at that time, which is where the play of the song originates.
Second, a reading of the lyrics demonstrates that the woman wants to stay the night, but is conflicted by the social customs and expectations of the day. Hence, it is a consentual relationship in which two people are torn between staying together and being pulled apart. The oft-questioned phrase, "What's in this drink," is then best understood as an almost-self-depricating-and-humorous self-awareness, much the same as was common phrasing at the time whenever someone was less-inhibited due to 'a few too many.' It is sad that we would rather assume and impose our world upon what was a different world once-upon-a-time. No, I'm not claiming that life in 1944 was perfect, but there was a shared cultural morality that frowned upon premarital sexual relationships, which one might need to explain in our contemporary society, where such things are laughed at by the voices in our culture.
The second song that is getting roughed up on the Christmas playground is "Mary, Did You Know? (1991)" I suppose that a good amount of the push-back here is due to a lot of overplaying that has happened with this song since it first gained widespread popularity. That's understandable, but the last couple of years – and especially in 2016 – it has become a popular move to offer a theological challenge to the intended meaning of this song. From internet memes to social commentaries in blogs and articles, the knee-jerk reaction is simply paraphrased: Yes! Mary did know! So, shut up!
Aside from perhaps some people hearing this song too many times in the December rotation, I really don't know why there is such pushback to this song. Probably this is another example of simply not reading the lyrics. The criticism of the song is based on the fact that Mary was told by Gabriel that her child would be the Messiah, and she sings in The Magnificat that this child will be great, sans the specifics that are mentioned in the modern song. That is to say: Yes, she knew that her child would be great and messianic, but there is little more than that in her self-stated 'knowledge' of what was happening. A longer reading of the Gospels shows that she did struggle with parts of Jesus' messianic role – she knew that he was to be God's Messiah, but she apparently didn't know what sort of Messiah he was going to be. We have no reason to think that Mary had a radically different understanding of messiahship than did everyone else in Second Temple Judaism.
Also to keep in mind here is that "Mary Did You Know?" is designed to be a reflection piece, centered on the mystery of the Incarnation, so that we too might ponder these things and treasure them in our hearts as well. Perhaps we miss out on this because so little of modern Christian worship involves reflection and meditation on the mystery of faith. The church in our culture, by and large, think of mystery as a riddle to be solved, not a person to be explored. Thus, we quickly get off on the wrong foot. No, this song isn't perfect theology, but it is a start – and it does seem to capture a lot of what people think about surrounding this Christ-child.
Again, there are more songs in question – some are genuinely poor, in musical quality and/or theology. But the endless complaints and manufactured irritation and criticism needs to go away, especially from those voices that are in the church. Christmas is indeed a significant season, and the gospel message that shines through the nativity ought to have teeth to it. But the Christmas songs are not the right battlefeld, and we ought to be doing more that is reflective of the Savior who has come.
There you have it – my Stop the Insanity plea for Christmas 2016.
Listen to that fireplace roar ...
09 November 2016
In the overnight hours the news came that our nation had elected our next President, thus bringing to a close another election cycle that had long grown weary and tired. To some degree or another, every election season wears on the American people and brings families, friends, and communities to feverish debate over which candidate will be the best in moving forward. This year the election is being called historic, for the presidency has gone to someone with no prior political or governing or military experience, and who has defied the odds put up by those who thought he had no legitimate chance of winning.
There have been fifty-eight presidential elections in our nation's history, and this is not the first time scandal, corruption, and immoral behavior have tainted the candidates. I am not a historian enough to know if these items have ever before been such a considerable factor for both candidates throughout the process, but at least in my lifetime this is unique. As a Christian pastor I have spent a considerable amount of time considering, speaking about, and listening to the moral issues that have surrounded this election and the persons involved. And I have had many conversations with Christian men and women who have labored and thought and prayed over how best to handle the choice between these two. From my finger-in-the-water sense of it, this has not been an easy road for many.
And now that it is over we are entering into the post-election onslaught of second-guessing, lamenting, and even moralizing. Let me say that I understand the general sense of frustration and uncertainty that presently exists, and even that there are some who are taking the results of this election rather personally. What is more, I have seen enough to know that such reactions are part and parcel for the days and weeks after an election (then it usually gets 'back to normal' after that). As we stand at this particular point of our history, however, the nature of the questionable moral character of the President-Elect has made for some very sharp criticism of him, and for those who voted for him.
There are many levels of this aspect of the election that need to be examined, but this post will only be able to deal with one in particular: the moral superiority of many Christians who are choosing to be overly critical of other Christians who voted for Donald Trump. Of course, there are many self-identified Christians in our country who aren't particularly serious about their faith, or who aren't necessarily 'biblical' in their worldview. Perhaps we can set this sub-group to the side for a moment. But, based on the statistics, there are many men and women of biblical faith who have cast their votes for the President-Elect.
And now the questioning has been set loose on all the country: Why? How could you? What are you thinking? Do you not even care about what the Bible says? These are some of the sentiments that have been running across my social media feeds throughout the day. The vast majority of these comments are not intended to hear and understand, but to express disappointment and frustration. I have rolled right on by most of these because they are emotive reactions. There have been, however, a couple of times today where I have the statement that evangelicals who cast their vote for Trump "have some explaining to do."
I am beside myself that some self-appointed moral authority has decided to call out other believers to justify their choice, as though we answer to some national spiritual parental presence. Even still, this is not the language of understanding, but of accusation for doing something that is so clearly in the wrong – this coupled with the conclusion that just over half of our nation has gone off the rails in that they would even think of voting this way in the first place. This is not the language of reason, and it is a fundamental truth that one cannot reason with emotion. However, you can respond, and that is what I feel I need to do here.
Rather than passing judgment from one believer to another, let us reason together what happens when there is a choice between two people (no, third party candidates are not viable to this election and very few were under the impression that they were). The Republican primary cycle was quite interesting, for a few reasons. One of the more fascinating pieces is that Trump won states that had 'open' primaries (in which people from any party could vote on the Republican ticket), and did not win states that held 'closed' primaries (where only registered Republicans could participate in the vote). American Evangelicals, for the most part, tend to be socially and politically conservative, and so their role in the primary process is worth considering. Without getting into a sea of nuance and overly-justifying every statement, suffice it so say that conservative evangelicals in large part were not in overwhelming support of Trump. This warming-up to the Republican nominee started to happen when other viable candidates had fallen by the wayside.
Where I live, the primary race was decided before we had a chance to cast our ballots. And so, between those who voted for another person in the primary or who had no choice to cast a meaningful vote in the primary, there were a good number of American Evangelicals who were left between two people with whom they had serious issues of moral and political leadership and character. But – and this is important – November 8 came anyway, and these were the names before our country. This is where the prayer and consideration really hits hard: some will say 'Never Hillary' and I can understand that as a reason; some will say 'Never Trump' and I can understand that as a reason; some will find some virtue in her and in him and, though I strongly question this, I can understand this as a reason; some will refrain from voting for either, and I can understand this as a reason.
Add to this the social and political climate that has been over the past six months, not only among the candidates themselves, with their brash talk and manipulative speech. I find it fascinating that the moralizing voices that are calling fellow believers to explain themselves and their choices, that any attempt to have a serious discussion about these candidates up to this point has been met with dismissive attitudes and demeaning response. It is hard to have a reasonable conversation about issues and candidates when the very mention of either candidate brings eye-rolling, scoffs, and an overall dismissive response. Speaking politics in the realm of the church community has become tense and fearful and divisive. Believers have allowed modern politics to divide the church quite easily, and our fellow brothers and sisters who struggled with how to live out their faith in this election might very well have appreciated a place where we could edify one another instead of looking down upon those with whom we disagree.
Now is the time for these to offer explanation? No. Within the church community the time to hear one another every day. And those who are stunned by this election and who cannot comprehend why so-called evangelicals could cast their votes en masse for Donald Trump are simply not hearing the frustration with the issues that is plaguing the church today. You see, this is not a simple issue of checking-a-box – a great many of our fellow believers struggled with this through and through. I know that I have wrestled with this election each time it has crossed my television, radio, mailbox, and conversation.
The Christian knows that we live before Almighty God, who sees into the human heart. When we are right and when we are wrong he knows our thoughts and our motives. He understands our struggles and our entanglements, and he loves us just as we are. And our Creator is the only one who can rightly judge the individual for what has been done, thus making him the only one who ever requires explanation. All other attempts to push this issue are simply the feeble acts of moral superiority that strip us of our humility in all of this and attempt to give us the role of examiner.
No, you need not explain yourself for any of the votes you cast on any level of your ballot. This is not only the virtue of the American system, but also the moral reality that is before Almighty God. But you do need to live your life tomorrow, the next day, and every day that he gives you breath, and you do need to walk in a way that honors the rightful king of the universe. Elections are neither the problem nor the solution – they are events that can reflect and affect the climate of our culture. As for what we do with them as believers, this begins with the simple truth that we will never find political answers to spiritual problems. Electing the "right person" will never achieve that which is given to the church as a daily exercise in making disciples of all nations with the continuing presence of Christ Jesus.
Perhaps once we have begun to truly rely on his kingship, beyond the snarky internet memes, we will stop the over-dramatizing of fear and loathing and dread that make us all look like a hopeless lot. Fear drove both of these campaigns, and believers were wrong to get swept up in it. Fear is now driving a lot of the response to who won (it would have been the same from the other side), and believers are wrong to get swept up in it. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)
Let us as a church not betray the love that we have experienced because we have disagreed with many of our brothers and sisters in how they voted – either direction. If we cannot work in genuine love, devoid of self-aggrandizement and backhanded moralizing, then we have surrendered the unity of the Holy Spirit to the empty shell of political power. "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:35)
It will be an incredible experience for the American Christian to realize that he really isn't surrounded by bad or stupid people – it's just that evangelicalism seems to be hurting from what we've allowed our church experience to become. And there is so much more when we all surrender everything we hold dear – even our candidates and elections – to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, to which all else is abandoned to the dustbin of eternity.
labels: god and country
01 November 2016
In his recent book, Destroyer of the Gods, Larry Hurtado explores the uniquess of early Christianity, specifically the oddities of this new movement in the context of the Roman Empire. In this post I wish to focus on one distinction in particular: a new way of life.
Among the 'cafeteria' of belief systems that made up the Roman world, one of the pieces that made the early church stand out is the emphasis on a collective commitment and a standard approach to living. There was an intentional focus on shaping social behavior that often went straight against accepted practices of the day – often in radical departures of typical society. This community was committed to a lifestyle that demonstrated the truth of the gospel in every dimension of life. This wasn't always a simple or easy discussion – often matters could quickly become complex, as can easily be seen in the New Testament and early Christian documents.
The Christian life was a demanding endeavor, at many times becoming dangerous for those who chose such a radical departure from their traditional culture (not simply martyrdom, but the harassment and social pressures that surrounded this emerging alternative culture of the church – see Hurtado, 184–186).
"Furthermore, I repeat that believers were to take on the demands of Christian behavior immediately upon their initiation as Christians, with the promise given that they could be enabled for this behavioral effort by divine gift" (171).
The message of the church is that discipleship is a challenging path, but also that each believer is given power by the Holy Spirit to take on the journey. There is no apology for the standards that are upheld by this church community, no timidity in the face of believers who fail to achieve them, and no accommodation considered when the pagan culture scoffed, threw stones, or walked away. Why not? Because the church based their moral standard on the Lordship of Christ Jesus over and against any philosphy, public opinion, or power that claimed an alternate truth.
This is what is entailed for the community of faith to live according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. This is one of the major distinctives of the early church, that they would hold out behavior requirements to their members, but to then also provide the basis of power to observe such requirements. It is the one decision that seems to underscore every choice that is given to humanity: to choose this day whom to serve. It is a choice of blessing and curse, obedience and disobedience, holiness and sinfulness, life and death, Christ or the world.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of human moral behavior is our own sexuality. This is an oft-discussed topic in scripture, and the world always seems to be filled with all sorts of conflict around this issue. Our nation continues to debate human sexuality and moral behavior, though often in twisted and politically-charged dialogue. And this has moved into the church, were increasingly believers are accepting worldly attitudes over biblical argument. In fact, much of the biblical message and its proper context is ignored for the simple mantra of "just love everyone no matter what" as the best the church can offer.
Of course, this can hardly be identified as radical behavior, and nobody in our world is going to think such a position is that odd – namely, becuase this is all that that progressive cultural voices tell us we should do in the first place. Oddly enough, those who shout JUST LOVE! to anyone who advocates moral standards frequently do not exhibit the love and acceptance and supposed-tolerance that they themselves demand. Those who have been paying attention for the last thirty–sixty years have noticed that the progressive agenda has marched right along, and the demands for JUST LOVE! are simply a means of disengaging the moral voices from legitimate reason and argument in order to give way to push forward their way of life without interference.
The present state of the church is showing that such an approach has indeed had its intended effects. Increasingly, believers are taking their cues for standards of moral belief from the standpoint of worldly acceptance rather than from the Holy Spirit and the written Word of God. It is no longer about discerning the Spirit's voice through prayer and study. Rather, it is about feeling as though we love everyone and have our society's approval for the message we proclaim. We do not need the Holy Spirit to empower us as believers, because we do not accept a standard of moral behavior that is demanding and radically subversive to our culture. To say it another way: we do not experience the Spirit because we do not walk in ways that require the Spirit's empowerment. It is a rather small faith that we exhibit in the midst of our culture – and we do not have because we do not ask.
Historically, the church has not always been a radical counter-cultural force determined to live gospel-centered lives in a radical manner. Of course, these are the times when the church also does not exhibit a dynamic presence of the Spirit working in and through the community of faith. We might tend to overlook this, though in our modern world there are many believers across the globe who are presently caught up in the Spirit's empowerment, giving them an effective witness through their counter-cultural lives, their distinct moral behaviors, and even at the great costs of harassment, imprisonment, disownment, and martyrdom. Yet, these are the believers who demonstrate what it means to participate in a kingdom not of this world, and to the rightful king who sits on the throne of the universe, presently enacting his reign.
Does the American church any longer have a new way to live, or are we simply looking to rubber-stamp the way we want to live anyway? Recent events have clearly demonstrated culture's influence on the American church culture, leading certain voices to declare 'holy' what scripture affirms as 'unholy,' for no other reason than we need to JUST LOVE! as though we've nothing else to offer the world. And yet we have in our midst the words of eternal life, and there still remains no where else to find them than in this gospel. Such is a transformative message that challenges the voices of the world and exposes their narrative as idolic mythology, shining the light of truth into the darkness.
Do we as the American church need the Holy Spirit to do what we are doing?
Is there more beyond the horizons of this world?
24 August 2016
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Jesus once spoke a blessing upon those who would work to bring about peace in this world. This was no starry-eyed platitude, expressing the niceties of a beauty pageant or second-rate political campaign. It was rather a declaration set within the context of God's kingdom making its way into our present experience. The notion of peace was central to the Jewish concept(s) of the messianic kingdom that was to be established on the earth (Isaiah 9:5–6; Zechariah 9:9–10). And so, Jesus is commending those whose lives will demonstrate the reality of God's rule by working to bring about peace.
We should remember that Jesus also commends those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Mt. 5:5), and so would envision the peace of God's reign to come in the context of justice in our world. So, again, this peace cannot be taken on the level of throwing pennies in a wishing-well, but rather the demonstrable outworking of the ethics of God's kingdom in a way that establishes peace and righteousness as a reality for the poor and oppressed among us.
It is interesting that Jesus would give to his followers the task of establishing a righteous peace in the world, for he lived in a world that was saturated with systems and images of worldwide peace. The empire that ruled the day would idealize a Pax Romana (Roman peace), an achievement that was believed to validate the Roman's right to rule, so given by the gods who had blessed their expansion and influence. In many ways Pax Romana was indeed a great accomplishment, especially in a world that had never been without constant tribal wars and conflict among regional leaders. And to bring about such peace not only gave demonstration to the superiority of Roman culture, it also demonstrated the legitimacy of Roman power.
The Romans believed that peace was established when their empire was able to conquer a region and put down any rebellion that opposed their rule. Perhaps this was the first example of the peace-through-strength model of governance (though that phrase has taken some variation throughout history). The idea of Pax Romana was not pursued as some utopian desire for worldwide friendship, but rather for the unashamed benefit of Rome itself, especially those in positions of power and leadership within the empire.
When Jesus calls his disciples to be peacemakers, he is making a summons to do so in contrast with the powers that be in the world – those who would so narrowly-define peace as 'we win, you lose' and use their might to get their own way. And Jesus does not teach us this in the context of running empires or influencing the masses. Instead, his words are spoken to the few that will follow the demands of discipleship and will work in their interpersonal relationships to transform individuals with the presence of his kingdom of righteous peace. He knows that this will not bring an immediate change to the culture – empires are not toppled overnight – but he also knows that politically-enacted change will not endure.
In the current political climate of American evangelicalism, the notion of being a peacemaker has taken a back seat to a gospel driven by influence and cultural significance. We have been convinced that we are in the throws of a crisis, and that the only way forward is to get as much control as we can as quickly as possible. Obtaining this sort of power is how we can save ourselves, keep the world from disaster, and establish our peace.
When we examine the current state of our presidential political campaign, there are many within the church who are choosing to find the one person who will secure this sort of strength within our government to establish the nation we think is best for ourselves. Never mind the moral failures, disregard the dishonesty, and look past the plans that isolate us from one another, our behavior appears to say that there are more pressing matters today than whether or not we will live for the gospel. Perhaps once we have secured our own liberty and peace, then we can consider Jesus' teachings of love for one another. It is much easier to join movements that fight for power and control of a nation than to be a people who carry the transformative change of the gospel to individuals who are hurting, poor and oppressed.
It seems that everyone wants to speak about where we go from here, and how we are going to make this work (or which of these is the lesser-of-two-evils). But nobody is interested in examining how we arrived at this point in the first place – our willing dismissal of the gospel is not a recent development, but rather a pattern of disregard that has been building to this moment of national moral crisis. This is why a church can be looking for conquering leaders and militant solutions, despite the fact that our Lord told us to speak and act in a radically different way.
The church needs to lay down the world's weapons of war, and become people who work for God's rule to take its place, one life at a time. Peace and life are found in this kingdom, not in the poor copies we have tried to make for ourselves. The Romans did not have a monopoly on running empires of military might, and we still must make the choice of which kingdom we will choose to be a part of, even if we self-identify as Christians. Our nation will not return from this brink until the people of God can return to the message of the gospel.