Archive for the 'Church and Society' Category

Over the last week, I’ve read a lot about Rob Bell’s new book. This post isn’t about that. This post, ultimately, isn’t about people’s responses to what they’ve read or seen about about the book, or even about my response to them. Reading comments on an article about the book, however, is the thing that got me thinking. One of the comments I read said the following:

With all due respect, what is the most loving thing one can do for another? The most loving thing we can do is tell another about the most loving thing anyone has ever done… Christ’s death on our behalf (plethora of Scriptural references follow.)

Now as I read that, I wasn’t really surprised. It’s something I’ve basically heard my entire life. I’ve probably said something very similar at different points in my life. But as I read it in that context, it made me stop dead in my tracks. Perhaps it was the writer’s use of the descriptor “most”. Is the act of telling another person the story of Jesus the most loving thing we can do. That is, is the act of sharing certain information with other people actually what constitutes love?

I’ve been wrestling with this idea the last few days. I genuinely do think that the act of telling, sharing is implicit in how the Gospel spreads. Humans are verbal creatures, and every human culture has storytellers. It’s in our DNA to share stories with each other. My question is, though, does the Gospel go beyond the act of simply transmitting information?

The conclusion I’ve come to is that, yes, it must. If we are simply telling people they are sinners in need of a savior, but refuse to engage in actual, tangible things that demonstrate love to people, do we love them? A number of years ago, the book The Five Love Languages was all the rage (I believe it still sells quite well). In the book, Gary Chapman lays out the simple proposition that there are five ways in which people give and receive love – words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Now the book itself is geared more towards marriage relationships, but as I think of the relationships I have with friends in my life, and I realize that the same principles can apply in just about any relationship.

The thing that I notice about all of them is that they truly cost something for the one attempting to show love to the other person. It takes effort to encourage someone. It is difficult to spend quality time with someone when I have a busy schedule to worry about. The list goes on. Love isn’t the easy thing. A lot of the time it’s the thing I’d rather not do. I would rather stay at home and watch the game on Saturday rather than help a single mom move into a new apartment. I’d rather go to the pub with my friends rather than volunteer to tutor the kids for the single father.

So as far as what is the “most loving” thing to do, I guess I come down to the answer that there simply isn’t a simply answer. What is most loving to my neighbor depends on my neighbor’s needs, and it depends on me being open to pour myself out. I tend to think that simply sharing information about Jesus, as important as that is, is often seen by those we are trying to share with as the easy way out – drive-by evangelism in a drive-thru world. The Gospel becomes simply another sales pitch, and we become little more than the salesman at Best Buy trying to sell an extended warranty.

This, of course, isn’t a new problem. Saying one thing and doing another is part of the human condition. The truth that Christ brought when He came is that He didn’t simply say He loved humanity. He demonstrated through His miraculous works, His tender compassion, and ultimately through His death on the cross. The question is will we truly follow Christ. Are we willing to take up our crosses for the sake of those who need to be loved? Or will we be content to simply think that sharing information with people is enough.

My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.

1 John 3:18-20

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actual guillotine from Scholl executionSixty-eight years ago today, on Feb 22, 1943, three Christian students in Munich, Germany, were executed for their peaceful resistance to the Nazi German government.   Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst (who had a wife and children) were members of the White Rose resistance – a non-violent, intellectual movement of students opposed to the policies and actions of Hitler and his government, based upon their Christian beliefs.  They were decapitated by guillotine in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison for the “crime” of passing out pamphlets in opposition to Hitler and Nazism, a crime of treason.

All too often, I have heard Christians lament the lack of opposition from within the German Church to the rise of Hitler and National Socialism. Sadly, there is some truth to this, but I have found more and more stories – like those of the White Rose, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Claus von Stauffenberg and others – which show that not all of Germany, nor its Christians, were in agreement with their government’s actions.

How many of us would be comfortable standing not only for our faith, but for its teachings, in such a situation?  I wish I could say I would be, but I wonder how it would be when the rubber met the road…

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Matthew 25: 31-46

Many a modernist evangelical, still caught in the culture wars and small-god systematics, loves to pull out the sheep and the goats metaphor when judging others. They do so, most often, when they are discerning who among the visible flock are true believers (sheep) and who are the pretenders, the modern-day heretics, the goats of the church. There are, of course, appropriate times to judge. Jesus was, after all, concerned about right belief… – but this post is not about those times.

Some judge while others mock those they believe are too concerned for things we call “social issues.” When it comes right down to it, they say, it’s all about getting people saved… not about drilling wells, educating heathens, or fair wages. And to some degree they are right…

…yet it is interesting.

When Jesus spoke of the final judgment and upon what it would be based – he did not speak of right beliefs, of right morality, or the right kind of music… he spoke of giving drink to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, of clothing the naked. In the context of sheep and goat differentiation; having a heart for the poor, the oppressed, the least of these – is what allows us to discern the sheep. It is not about winning a culture war. It is not about fighting socialism. It is not about convincing homosexuals not to homo-sex. It’s not about ranting against liberalism. It’s not even about getting as many people as possible to repeat a sinners prayer.

As Tim Keller put it: “Jesus did not say that all this done for the poor was a means of getting salvation, but rather it was a sign that you already had salvation, that true saving faith was already present” (Generous Justice, pg. 53 [emphasis his]). The “test” for saving faith (in this case) was not a check-list of acceptable beliefs, or witnessing, or service within the church, or even the fruit of the Spirit… (all of which a vitally important). Instead he chose our attitudes toward and actions on behalf of the poor.

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I just finished reading Radical by David Platt. I really like the book and agree with about 95% of what he has to say. I found this particularly refreshing:

As a result, Christ commands the church make the gospel known to all people. If this is true, then the implications for our lives are huge. If more than a billion people today are headed to a Christless eternity and have not even heard the gospel, then we don’t have time to waste our lives on an American dream. Not if we have all been commanded to take the gospel to them. The tendency in our culture is to set around debating this question, but in the end our goal is not to try to find an answer to it; our goal is to alleviate the question altogether (157-158).

For more on Platt, check out my review.

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The renewal of the human being in the divine image is profoundly personal, and embraces the human person in his or her totality.  This means that (trans)formation is fully embodied within a nest of relationships, a community.  From Scripture we receive an all-encompassing perspective on human health in the cosmos and in relation to God, but also well-developed ways of identifying the sickness that spreads like a cancer througout the human family, even eating away at the world that humans call home.  The term generally given this sickness in the Christian tradition is “sin”, a multivalent term that points to the myriad ways in which humans – individually, collectively, and systematically – neglect, deny, and refuse simply to be human – that is, to embrace and live out their vocation as creatures made in the image of God.  Accordingly, a Christian conception of human transformation does not allow the categorization of either the person or his or her salvation into “parts,” as though inner and outer life could be separated.  Angst among Christians in recent decades over how to prioritize ministries of “evangelism” and “social witness” is simply wrongheaded, therefore, since the gospel, the “evangel” of “evangelism,” cannot but concern itself with human need in all its aspects.  Only an erroneous body-soul dualism could allow – indeed, require – “ministry” to become segregated by its relative concern for “spiritual” versus “material” matters.  Nor does a Christian conception of human transformation allow us to think of the restoration of individuals, as it were, one at a time, but pushes our categories always to account for the human community and, beyond humanity, the cosmos.  Persons are not saved in isolation from the world around them.  Restoration to the likeness of God is the work of the Spirit within the community of God’s people, the fellowship of Christ-followers set on maturation in Christ.  From this vantage point, “image of God” points ultimately to the transformation of believers in resurrection, a transformation already at work in the creation of new humanity through the dissolution of barriers dividing human beings from one another along gender, social, or ethnic lines (Col 3:10-11; 1 Cor 12:12-13; Gal 3:28).

Joel B. Green, from Body, Soul, and Humanity, pp. 69-70

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PhotobucketOne of my friends on Facebook posted a link to a great article by Scot McKnight on Christianity Today earlier today. McKnight does a good job of talking about the perceived differences between the way the Kingdom of God is presented in the Gospels and the way Paul presents the Gospel. In his opinion, the way evangelicals think of this supposed divide is changing:

But something has happened in the past two decades: a subtle but unmistakable shift among many evangelicals from a Pauline-centered theology to a Jesus-shaped kingdom vision. Sources for this shift surely include George Eldon Ladd’s The Presence of the Future, the rugged and unrelenting justice voice of Jim Wallis, perhaps most notably in his Call to Conversion, and a growing social conscience among evangelicals.

So does this new found appreciation of the Kingdom mean that evangelicals are abandoning Paul? Well, perhaps some may feel drawn to do so, but, according to McKnight, this is a bit of a false dilemma. Is it really necessary to set Jesus and Paul against each other? No. First, how does Paul actually define the Gospel? McKnight reminds us:

As we can see, here Paul is about to define gospel, and in fact, this is the only text in the New Testament that does so. What he says next is crucial:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

A number of observations are in order.

First, this is the gospel handed on to Paul (v. 3), which suggests it was the gospel the earliest apostles preached.

Second, the gospel saves people from their sins (v. 2-3).

Third, the essence of the gospel is the story of Jesus (vv. 3-8) as the completion of Israel’s story (v. 3). Both the word Christ (Messiah) and the phrase “according to the Scriptures” are central to how the apostles understood the word gospel.

Fourth, there’s not a word here about either kingdom or justification! Sure, you can probe “for our sins” until both themes bubble up to the surface, but we should at least let Paul be Paul when it comes to defining the gospel.

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So, the idea that the Gospel is just about personal justification is an idea that is superimposed on the definition that Paul actually gives. Yes, salvation from our sins is part and parcel to the message, but the Gospel is primarily about Jesus – who He is, what He did, and how He fits into the whole narrative of Scripture. Jesus did what Israel could not do by remaining faithful to the covenant, and by dying and rising victorious over death and the Enemy, He brings salvation to the world.

In conclusion, McKnight says:

My contention, then, is simple: If we begin with kingdom, we have to twist Paul into shape to fit a kingdom vision. If we begin with justification, we have to twist Jesus into shape to fit justification. But if we begin with gospel, and if we understand gospel as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, then we will find what unifies Jesus and Paul—that both witness to Jesus as the center of God’s story. The gospel is the core of the Bible, and the gospel is the story of Jesus. Every time we talk about Jesus, we are gospeling. Telling others about Jesus leads to both the kingdom and justification—but only if we begin with Jesus.

Overall, I find McKnight’s conclusion very convincing and helpful. The is basically the same thing as N.T. Wright has been saying for a long time now, and it seems like others are seeing the usefulness of his approach. McKnight doesn’t get into the technical definition of the terms in this short essay, but there are plenty of other places to do that. His point that the Gospel is the story of Jesus is very good one. It’s something we all need reminded of.

Blessings!

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In his book Practice Resurrection Eugene Peterson quotes a fellow named Herbert Butterfield who wrote a book called International Conflict in the Twentieth Century. Mr Butterfield wrote the following in that book:

“Let us take the devil by the rear, and surprise him with a dose of those gentler virtues that will be poison to him. At least when the world is in extremities, the doctrine of love becomes the ultimate measure of our conduct” (as quoted by Peterson, p 265).

This afternoon, I read through the short letter Peter wrote to those who were ‘scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bythinia.’ I have read through Peter’s letter several times, and I have preached through it more than once. I saw something this morning which made me do a double-take–maybe something I hadn’t seen before or had and wasn’t all that interested in. Either way, I saw it; I was caught.

Peter’s letter is normally exegeted in such a way that the exegete will be able to expound dutifully on the virtue of suffering as Christ suffered. That is to say, Peter wrote about how to suffer as a Christian. To be sure, Peter does write quite a bit about suffering—suffering in a variety of contexts and at the hands of a variety of people. If there is someone who can cause suffering for the believer, they have caught Peter’s eye and he has written of how the Christian can and should respond. All of this suffering we do is blended, in Peter’s letter, with both lengthy and pithy explanations and expositions of Jesus’ suffering. Somewhere in all five chapters Peter talks about Jesus’ suffering.

That is good.

But there is an undercurrent also in Peter’s letter that might be easily enough overlooked if we do not pay attention (as evidently I have done). It’s one of those ‘forest and trees’ things. Easily enough are we caught up in conversations about suffering and how we suffer and why we suffer and where we suffer and who is suffering and so on and so forth—and, we should not dismiss the suffering of Jesus which is the context in which all of it makes sense. The undercurrent in Peter’s letter is what we do for one another when we suffer. He begins in chapter 1, verse 8, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Peter’s optimism shines out: Though you have not seen him, you love him. In light of Jesus’ suffering, we suffer and while we do we hold fast to our love of him. Jesus suffered. We suffer. We love Jesus whom we have not seen. It all makes good sense. We love Jesus. Yet Peter spends significantly small amount of time expanding on this love we have for Jesus and instead turns his attention back to people we do see, those people on earth who dress funny, who stink, who irritate us, who gossip about us, who live side by side with us in the congregation called the body of Christ—that is, those we suffer with every day. And his word for us is difficult.

I don’t think loving Jesus, whom we have not seen, is all that difficult. Peter must not think so or he would have expanded on it a bit more. It is loving those we live with that is difficult. It is the loving of those we have seen that is so confounding. Love one another, he writes, not just once, but nearly as often as he writes of the death and suffering of Jesus. And he starts right in, badgering us for our lack of love and compassion for one another: “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22) In other words, “You are really good at doing things like staying pure in a funky, armpit kind of world. And you say you have sincere love for each other. Now do it! Get on with the business of loving each other, deeply, from a place inside of yourselves.” Most of us can keep rules all day long. Most of us can stay pure all day. But can we love each other? Will we?

Holiness is easy. Love is difficult. Yet Peter seems to believe the two are somehow intertwined, bound up together like Gollum and the Ring. Loving Jesus whom we cannot, have not, seen is a piece of cake. Loving one another whom we see every day—that’s another story. Holiness is important, no doubt. But what is holiness if we do not love one another deeply, from the heart? “This is the word that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25). “This” includes the admonition to ‘love one another.’ Loving one another is just as important as our born-againness, as the death of Jesus, as the resurrection of Jesus, as preaching, as prophecy—it’s a cardinal doctrine. Love one another.

He doesn’t let up either. “I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Great! Another passage about living pure and holy lives in the bowels of existence. No sweat! But he doesn’t stop: “Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). Well, what does fearing God and honoring the emperor have to do with the way I treat those who are my brethren in Christ? Seemingly nothing, except that it’s easy to fear God, it’s easy to respect the emperor, and it’s easy to show respect to ‘everyone.’ What is difficult is the loving of my brother and sister in Christ when the only motivation for doing so is because Jesus expects me to whether they love me back or not. Sometimes I wonder if we are not more threatened by those in the body than we are by those who are not.

I like how Peter sort of throws that in there. “Hmm…let’s see…respect EVERYONE, fear God, the emperor, laugh at Muppets, dance with clowns….oh, yeah, LOVE ONE ANOTHER.” It’s like he’s going to throw that in every chance he gets in order to remind us of what really matters. Holiness matters. Human authority matters. But you must not forget to love one another. If you succeed at loving God and honoring the emperor but fail at loving one another–well, you have not succeeded at all.

He doesn’t stop. In chapter 3 we learn that we will most certainly suffer in this world: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed” (1 Peter 3:13-14). But before all this, before he warns us of insults, evil, suffering, threats of violence, and all this he has the nerve to say: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8). The last thing he says is: Love one another. You are going to suffer. You are going to have bad days. You are going to be thrown under the bus by anyone and everyone in this world: Love one another.

The world is going to spit upon you every chance it gets; love one another. Treat each other right. You are going to have enough trouble in this world without going to all the effort to create it amongst yourselves. And this is the problem I have seen in every single church I have preached among. Churches do not really know how to love each other, and, frankly, no amount of exhortation from the pulpit or reading from the Scripture or praying in the closet seems to alter the simple fact that we, the body of Christ, do not know how to love each other.

Don’t think I’m preaching this from the loft, wearing a halo, and fluttering about with wings. I’m am chief among sinners here. Maybe we do not know how to love each other because we do not know how to suffer together, as a body? Maybe when one part suffers we are far too content to allow that one part to suffer alone or with the pastor or with their family. Maybe suffering needs to be more of a communal thing in the church—but we are too quick to abandon those who suffer, thus love is never truly cultivated and never truly matures among us. Maybe this is an American church phenomenon. Maybe churches in, say, Africa, where suffering takes place daily, do know how to love each other precisely because they have suffered together.

And still Peter doesn’t stop: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

“The point is that in the situation of persecution the one thing that matters above all else is love toward one another. It has to be a ‘deep’ love, but the English word doesn’t adequately convey the sense of the Greek ‘at full stretch.’ Why at full stretch? Because this love will be stretched to the limit by the demands made on it. Let us remind ourselves that Christian love means caring for other people in their needs and that such care will be accompanied by a growing affection for them. Many people are prepared to care for others; they are less ready to have affection for them and to demonstrate it. It requires love at full stretch to do this” (I Howard Marshall, 1 Peter, 143).

It is inevitable that we will sin. It is probably even more inevitable that we will sin against one another. These sins, grievous and heinous as they are, can be forgiven. I don’t think this means that the person sinned against simply overlooks the offense. That doesn’t seem to square with other thoughts in the New Testament that we have a right, perhaps an obligation, to confront those who sin against us in order to either offer or obtain forgiveness. Rather, I think Peter is drawing on the imagery of the work of God:  God’s love covers a multitude of sins. The cross has been in every thought he has uttered in this letter, surely he is thinking of God’s great love. In other words, God forgives, we should too. And as God does not continue holding on to our sin once he has forgiven us, so too should we let go when we have forgiven or been forgiven by others. Whatever else ‘covers’ might mean, it surely means that the sins are no longer visible in some sense. They are forgotten, hidden, no longer a part of the memory or function of the relationship. Love conquers all. Love wins.

Love does this. Only love does this. Only because we love Jesus whom we haven’t seen are we able to love those whom we have seen. So as Peter wraps it up, he has one last charge for us: “Greet one another with a kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14). In other words: demonstrate your deep, from the heart, sincere, compassionate, sin-covering love for one another by laying a big, wet sloppy one on each other. I suspect James would tell us not only to kiss the lovely and good smelling folks among us, but also the broken and smelly ones too.

We are not so cultured in our world where a kiss of affection and love is often shared among brethren. It’s not the way we roll. But I wonder if a handshake sort of misses the point? We shake the right hand of fellowship and carry a dagger in the left. I wonder if a hug is too phony. I wonder if a kiss gets at the root and heart of the matter. In a kiss we expose ourselves to all sorts of trouble—not least of which is sickness. A kiss, however, is intimate. It is necessarily sexual. A kiss necessarily exposes us to the one we share the kiss with. Just ask Judas or Caesar. Maybe Peter had in mind Judas who betrayed Jesus with such a kiss: “Don’t be like Judas and betray with a kiss. Let your kiss be one of love.”

Whatever the case may be, and it is possible that I am overstating the case, Peter’s charge here is definitely that our love be demonstrated. I don’t know how this gets accomplished in various cultures. I don’t know if a kiss is like foot-washing and merely a cultural thing we must adapt in some way. But I am fairly certain we must find a way to demonstrate, without hypocrisy, our love for one another.

Peter has covered a lot of ground here, right?

You are in the process of becoming holy, don’t forget to love each other while doing so or else your holiness will amount to nothing. (1 Peter 1:22).

You are living under strange conditions as foreigners and exiles, facing all sorts of strange masters and rulers, don’t forget to love one another which is just as important as living at peace with everyone else (1 Peter 2:17).

You are going to suffer in this life, here on this earth. You will have enough trouble on this earth without inviting it into your fellowship, so love one another; you need each other’s love when the world is destroying and hating you. (1 Peter 3:8).

You are anxiously awaiting the day to be revealed, to see how all of this will turn out in the end, but while you wait, there will be times when we sin against one another. In light of what we await, love one another and forgive. Deeply. (1 Peter 4:8).

And don’t forget to make certain that your love for one another is not merely in words or in thoughts. Demonstrate it, intimately, with a kiss of love. (1 Peter 5:14)

Jesus created the church to be a place, a people, who will support, strengthen, comfort, forgive and love one another while we are doing life together. As always the question remains: How am I perpetuating love and contributing to an atmosphere of love? Am I a  balm of healing or picking at scabs?

Peter’s letter amply describes and portrays the difficult world we live in, a world where we will have much trouble, but it is also the world where some have been marked by the cross of Jesus. We will have enough trouble in this world without being trouble for one another. And how else will we take the devil by the rear if we do not love one another?

Soli Deo Gloria!

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I’m reading some really good books right now. I think I like them because they irritate me and I get all worked up when I read them. One, especially, is driving me nuts. It’s a book by Steven Furtick called Sun Stand Still and it is an especially unpleasant read–for the most part.

Another book, Whole Life Transformation, by Keith Meyer comes off at times as way too autobiographical and winy, but I’m starting to open up to it a bit more the deeper I get into it.

As I was reading, I came across a rather lengthy quote that I thought you (the readers) might appreciate. The quote is from a man I have never heard of who lived a really, really long time ago.  I have no context other than what Meyer gives, so the quote is sort of threadbare as far as it goes.

One of the most persistent mistakes of Christian men has been to postpone social regeneration to a future era to be inaugurated by the return of Christ…It is true that any regeneration of society can come only through the act of God and the presence of Christ; but God is now acting, and Christ is now here. To assert that means not less faith, but more. It is true that any regeneration of society is dogged by perpetual relapses and doomed forever to fall short of its aim. But the same is true of our personal efforts to live a Christ-like life; it is true, also of every local church, and of the history of the church at large. Whatever argument would demand the postponement of social regeneration to a future era will equally demand the postponement of personal holiness to a future life. (Meyer’s emphasis; quote from Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century, ed Paul B Raushenbush, p 283. Meyer quotes him on page 50 of Whole Life Transformation.)

Well, I have to be honest with you when I say: that sounds right to me. What do you think? Is there a correlation between personal holiness and social regeneration? Do you think Rauschenbusch was on to something when he wrote that more than a century ago?

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“We are living in the world that was made by the god we worship, the world that does not yet acknowledge this true and only God. We are thus surrounded by neighbours who worship idols that are, at best, parodies of the truth, and who thus catch glimpses of reality but continually distort it. Humans in general remain in bondage to their own gods, who drag them into a variety of degrading and dehumanizing behavior-patterns. As a result, we are persecuted, because we remind the present power-structures of what they dimly know, that there is a different way to be human, and that in the message of the true god concerning his son, Jesus, notice has been served on them that their own claim to absolute power is called into question.”—NT Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 369

If this is where we are, and I am hard-pressed to disagree, then I have to assume that I am here for a reason. I also believe that I must be in the place where God wants me to be—if I believe that God put me where I am. It is rather difficult for me to think that I, having been taught what I have been taught, that I have been given what I have been given solely for myself. It’s also become increasingly difficult for me to believe that just because the circumstance or place is not what I had imagined that it is somehow not what God had imagined.

A fellow named Gabe Lyons writes:

“…Christians have finally recovered what many who have gone before them always understood about the faith: namely, that the Christian view of the world informs everything, that the Gospel runs deep, and that the way of Jesus demands we give our lives in service to others. Jesus’s atonement was not only to be a simple ticket to heaven—it carried consequence for how Christians live their lives on earth today” (The Next Christians, 201).

We are on earth, nestled comfortably in small spots where God wants us.

But you know what? I find this reasoning not only in Lyons (who, having gone to Liberty University, might have some Baptist background), but I find it in NT Wright (an Anglican tradition) and Karl Barth (a Lutheran tradition) and Eugene Peterson (a Presbyterian tradition) and Brennan Manning (a Catholic tradition) and Tim Keller (a Reformed tradition) and Rob Bell (an ‘emergent’ tradition) and so on and so forth. All of these folks, and many, many more like them, agree that the Gospel does something to us—it radically alters our DNA, it reshapes our spirit, it resurrects our hearts, and reforms our minds, and in so doing it prepares us to cooperate with the holy Spirit of God and carry out the work which he has prepared for us—but I am wont to define that work too particularly. Who is to say with any precision what we are and are not called to do and be?

There was this day, a while ago, after Jesus had resurrected, when he took his disciples outside Jerusalem and walked them up a hill. There, before their eyes, he was ‘taken up’ and a ‘cloud hid him.’ They, the disciples, stood staring at the sky, transfixed as it were on a cloud. It was a sad development that two angels of God had to shake them out of: “Why are you standing here looking into the sky?” In other words, “What are you doing? Get your heads out of the clouds and get your attention back down here on earth! There is work to do here and we don’t have time to be staring at the sky.” Sometimes, don’t you think, we spend a little too much time with our heads in the clouds trying to escape or forget about this place?

But how can we forget about the place where we have put down roots? How can we neglect our neighbor broken and unloved as he is? How can we think that the sole thing we have to offer is a speech or, well, “go in peace, be warm and well fed” (James 2:16).

You know what is amazing about that eclectic group of people I have mentioned? They are loved by Jesus and in turn love Jesus. His love for them radically altered them and their love for him opens them up to his plan. And the older I get, and the deeper I read, and more I walk with people like John Stott, Michael Spencer, Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon, Karl Barth, DA Carson, Tim Keller, Wendell Berry, the more I walk with them and talk with them and listen to them, the more I realize that it is not perfection that is required to make the people of God the people of God, the Church. It is Jesus. Jesus is the tie that binds us together as one.

Hear this brilliance from Karl Barth: “It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendents. It was and is and will be the One who says: ‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’…Verily He is that One, and none other is or can be” (Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 1.2, xi). Do you hear that? He’s talking about Jesus! We put so much confidence in position, place, this and that—but look: Jesus is our unifying and binding power. Personally, I believe we are too confident in our own power, our own brilliance, or our own knack for fixing broken things. Sometimes I do not believe we really believe Jesus owns the Church.

So where are we? We are in the world that Jesus steadfastly refused to remove us from (see John 17). He said that our place was here, for now, and that he had work for us to do and he resurrected us for that very purpose (see Ephesians 2 among others). He also said that he would empower us to carry out the work (see Acts 1:1-2:47 among others). He also said that we are sustained by His power (see Revelation among others).  We are here, I believe, because God wants us here. And you know what? I find that refreshing, empowering, comforting, and blessed. Such a thought emboldens me to grasp what I cannot hold and let go of what I can. He wants us here, and if he does, then he’s got something for us to do, he will empower us, and he will sustain us.

We are the Church, the body of Christ. We are here, in this place together. We are his people, sustained by His power and Spirit. And he has given us work to do.

“Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.  Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.—Paul, to the Ephesians, chapter 3.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a  radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27).

I think it is fair to say that I have had my issues with the church. Maybe my issues are a wee bit different given that I have been on both sides of the proverbial aisle—as a lay person and a professional person. Maybe those are the wrong categories too.

It was not just professional failure that caused a lot of my criticism. I had some especially irritating youth leaders when I was a younger man. They thought they knew so much with all their ‘you shouldn’t do this’s’ and ‘you shouldn’t do that’s’. Ugh. Being a teenager was such a drag with all those hypocritical youth leaders whose own children grew up worse and who, inevitably, ended up divorced or worse. Sheesh.*

But hypocrisy is something I am well acquainted with now that I am adult. You’ve heard the old saying that there was a certain fourteen year old couldn’t believe how dumb his father was and who later, when he became a twenty-one year old, couldn’t believe how much his father had learned in a mere seven years? I now believe in the utter genius of all those terrifically, wonderfully, hypocritical youth leaders who loved me so ceaselessly when I was a teenager. Now that I am older man with children of my own who have never experienced that for a minute in their lives, I realize just how blessed I was. How I wish my own sons had some hypocritical, problem-laden adult youth leaders cramming all that morality and Jesus talk down their throats.

Who knows the depths of self-destruction that might have plagued me had they not been there, hounding me, loving me, restraining me. As I look back, I think I was actually compelled by their sometimes confrontational nature. I enjoyed arguing; they were more than happy to give me reasons to argue. I wanted to be loved; they did so generously, carelessly, and devotedly.

I have read a couple of articles in the past week that I believe were placed in my path by one of those old youth leaders or perhaps the Holy Spirit had something to do with it. Either way, they were special articles that I thought I’d share with you.

The first is from Books & Culture and was written by Philip Yancey. It’s from a couple of months old issue of the journal, but I’m a bit behind my journal reading. In the essay, Yancey is recapping an aspect of his writing career that has dealt, primarily, with his criticism of a certain Bible College he attended as a young man. Near the end of the essay Life in a Bubble he writes:

Through the grace of God, and also the grace of the college administration, I managed to survive through graduation. I now reflect on my time at Bible college with some shame but much gratitude: for the biblical knowledge I acquired there, for the personal disciplines that I resented at the time but learned to appreciate, and for the essential part that school played in grounding my faith. Ever since, we have had an ambivalent relationship, the school and I. They gave me a Distinguished Alumnus award—and nearly asked for it back after I wrote about the school in What’s So Amazing About Grace?

This is an especially good article Yancey wrote. He took some flak for it in a later edition of Books & Culture in the Letters to the Editor section, but I appreciate his honesty.

A second article I read is from the November 14, 2010 issue of Christian Standard. In the article Stop Bashing the Bride, Mike Baker wrote, rather beautifully I might add, the following:

Here’s something else to consider: God knew the church would be imperfect! I’ve always been amazed that God established two crucial institutions in the world—the family and the church, and he put weak-willed, imperfect, prone-to-sin, messed-up people in charge of both. Did it ever occur to anyone that this is a part of God’s great design to show his strength in our weakness?

I’m not saying we should go on being imperfect losers so that God’s strength may abound. But I am saying God knew the people of his church would be imperfect; in fact, imperfection is one thing that has been universally consistent about the people who make up the church from the first century to the 21st century!

But the church is humanly imperfect. Spiritually speaking, she is beautiful and without flaw. God made her that way through his extreme love in dying for her. I believe it’s time for leaders in the church to stop pointing out her spots, wrinkles, and blemishes because Christ has made her radiant. Have you noticed her beauty lately? God has.

I encourage you to read both essays in their entirety.

Since venturing into this world, the world of blogging, I have met some of the most wonderful people on the face of Darwin’s earth. I realize that even though I am not currently supported by the church, any church, it was the church that supported me and my wife through many toils, trials and snares. Cancer. Hemolytic anemia. Three children. Bible College. Through all this and more it was the church—‘imperfectly perfect’ as Mike Baker calls her—that has loved me, loved Renee, loved my sons. There is, to be sure, a lot of ugliness in the church. No one denies that. But there is, more so, a boundless and unmitigated beauty in her too.

And I, for one, have, in my gross exaggerations of suffering at her hands, missed this beauty. Sometimes so eager to justify my own points of view or sin, I have been a downright arrogant prig when it comes to the church. My demands have been, at times, more than the Lord Jesus has asked of her. Unfortunate as that is, it is the truth.

Now I find myself in a strange way missing the church that has loved me so relentlessly.

I need a new trajectory for dealing with the church and her imperfections. It is only my awareness of my own conceit that keeps me from seeing the church as Christ sees her—His bride, His Love, the One He died for. He died for the church—the very church that I, and others, have taken such a delight in bashing and criticizing. Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips and I blog among a people with unclean keyboards.

Eugene Peterson wrote in his book Practice Resurrection that the church is somehow different, somehow beautiful, and that in the church we learn something we cannot learn anywhere else on earth: we learn how to love.

The church is the primary place we have for learning this language of love. The conditions here in the church, unlike the conditions in the world, are propitious—not the endless variations on eroticized fornication and adultery posing as love in the world, nor, to take a de-eroticized alternative, a classroom with a distinguished professor giving lectures on love, assigning papers, our desks strewn with grammars and concordances and dictionaries. Rather, in church we find a gathering of people who are committed to learning the language in the company of the Trinity and in company with one another. We don’t learn it out of a book. (216)

This is a long way to saying something along these lines: I love the church because she first loved me. I have been far more accepted in the church than I have been rejected. After all, I cannot let a few professional terminations along the way determine how I feel about those who have done nothing but open their arms and welcome me back anytime I happen to decide I’m sick of the pig-pen.

Maybe if we saw the church in terms of the Bride that Christ Jesus loves, instead of the place where we have been run over, then we will not be so anxious to hurl our criticisms at her. Perhaps if we are quicker to see the church as the Bride Jesus has healed with his own blood then we will not be so quick to point out that there may be places where she is not entirely healed just yet. Perhaps if we are wise enough to see how patient Jesus has been with the church then we will be a little slower to become angry with her ourselves.

Perhaps if we took a minute to see how much Jesus loves His Bride then…then…we will speak more tenderly to her, of her, about her, and around her. After all, if someone speaks ill of my bride, I’m going to take offense and deal with those words accordingly.

Perhaps we need to all take a minute and consider how Jesus feels when we talk about his Bride.

We are talking about Christ’s bride here. Shouldn’t we be a little more careful about how we flippantly describe Jesus’ wife as irrelevant, corrupt, hypocritical, and ineffective? Indulge me just a little as I defend the church I have come to love and am falling in love with more and more every day. (Mike Baker)

*I’m being a little sarcastic here.

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