Losing Focus

I’ve tried several times to write about this cultural moment, and my paralysis is perhaps best exemplified by my problem even finding  a suitable shorthand name for all of this – because it is about so much more than Chick-Fil-A, and even the ongoing culture war in America.  This moment is a symptom of several chronic ailments, both for the culture and for the Church.  I am inclined here to focus on the ailments of the Church, particularly because I think we (the Church) need to start with the log in our own eye before we start to pick at the eye of the culture.

What distresses me most about the Church in this situation?  That most Christians I have heard, seen or read regarding this moment are more concerned about defending their First Amendment rights than the Kingdom of God and the gospel of that Kingdom.  Lots of talk about defending our rights, and no one (in my circles) asking how we can show or express the Kingdom in this situation.  Too few are asking how we can invite the people we are treating like our enemies to come to the Kingdom, or even thinking about the Kingdom.  I think that reflects that our Kingdom citizenship is far less prominent in our minds than our present circumstances.  Do we take it for granted?  Do we not understand its appropriate prominence in our lives? Or, worst of all, is Christ (and his Kingdom) an accessory for us, rather than our identity?  We are clearly more concerned about making sure that our understanding of The American Way carries the day than that Jesus Christ would be known and loved.  Our attention is on building American Christian Empire, not the Kingdom of God.

What distresses me almost as much about the Church is how stupid and hateful we sound.  I have encountered multiple Cultural Warriors in the last week who, on the surface, would seem to be on the same side as me, and after listening carefully to them, I am seriously tempted to move across the aisle.  I believe there is a logically-consistent, Biblically-grounded rationale for not following the cultural tide toward redefining marriage, but it is rarely articulated.  Instead, we speak out of our emotional insecurity, our visceral distaste for sexuality that doesn’t look like ours, and our patchwork of proof-texts and half-learned lessons from sermons or Bible studies.  Our presentation is an overheated, blustery drawing of a line in the sand – rather than an attempt to reason with the person who disagrees with us, so she will see the consistency of our position, or to persuade the person, so he will be drawn to our alternate vision of what is and can be.  Our responses don’t actually seem designed to win anyone to either Christ or our side; they are sledgehammers, or cannon fire, intended only to beat back our “opponents”.  I cannot see how this is ever a response suitable for a follower of Jesus.

We are fearfully consumed with anxiety about winning, even as we claim to be the people who are standing up for Scripture.  These two things cannot fit together!  The Bible study group I meet with each Friday morning has been discussing the Revelation of John for 4 years, and the passage we were reading this morning from chapter 20 reminded us vividly that Christ has won the victory over Satan, and sin, and death.  He does not need us to fight his battles (this is quite literal, in fact: if you look at Chapters 19 and 20, Christ gathers his faithful in a way that is pictured as an army, but it is only Christ who fights the foe!).  If we believe that Jesus is Lord, then he will complete his victory in his time, and the truth will win out.  So why are we trying to conquer enemies, instead of trying to invite those who dwell in darkness to see the great light of Christ?  Or, if we will insist on seeing them as enemies, when will we start treating them the way Jesus told us to treat our enemies?

Lawgiver, or Friend?

Lest this seem to come out of nowhere, I want to flesh our an idea that we talked about in worship this morning, as we continued our journey through the New Testament letter 1 John:

Have you ever thought about how you mentally frame God’s commandments?  The language of “command” automatically starts our minds down a specific pathway, one where God makes the rules and hands them down to us, and we receive them and follow them or else.  And…there is something of that pathway that we need to take seriously.  God is Sovereign, and is the one who establishes the code of conduct he desires from his people.  These aren’t the Ten Suggestions, and this isn’t the first step in a negotiation.

And yet…might we also need to notice that God has something like a “dual role” with his people?  Consider that in the introduction of his first letter, John writes:

that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3 ESV)

The tone of that passage is very different from the thought-world of God as Commandment-Giver, isn’t it?  Fellowship is the translation of koinonia, a word which speaks of close relationship and sharing, mutuality and partnership – and this is the word John uses to describe the relationship he has (and his readers can have) with the Father and the Son.  So, what do we do with the tension between these two ways of understanding God?

Most commonly, people resolve the tension by disregarding one side or another.  Some try to explain away one of the two sides, but others simply “forget” one side, and frame God as either Stern Lawgiver or Welcoming Friend.

Why can’t God be both?

In the third chapter, John’s description of the Divine-human relationship resumes:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 John 3:1 ESV)

This image is the resolution of the tension between Lawgiver and Friend.  What’s more, I think it reveals the desire of God for the ongoing movement of his relationship with us.  Within the parent-child relationship, there is intended and expected hierarchy, and there is mutuality.  There is (at least at the beginning of the relationship) a clear expectation of superiority of understanding and wisdom, and there is tender-heartedness, and the hope that maturation will bring friendship between the parent and the child.

So it is, that God gives commands, because he loves us as children, and knows the world (and us) better than we do, and wants the very best for us.  In fact, God knows the world and us perfectly, and God’s commands are given in light of that knowledge.  God’s commands (and I do not soften the authoritative force of that word in any way) are also invitations into a quality of life which God desires for us and with us as we enter into ever-deepening koinonia with him.  The commands do not cease to be commands, but as we mature, perhaps we begin to understand the heart behind them.  When God gives us commands, he gives them out of love, and out of the desire that through following them we will be able to relate to God in more mature ways.

I am blessed that I am able to think of my father and mother as friends.  I cannot recall if the idea really occurred to me when I was 11 (like my oldest son is now); even if it did, I surely did not imagine the depth of our relationship today.  At 11, most of our relationship was still governed by the rules of the household which they set down; I cannot think of the last time one of my parents felt the need to identify a command for me to follow.  Some of this is because I have internalized the rules of my parents’ household, and they have become an invisible part of our relationship – might this correspond to the Jeremiah prophecy of the new covenant?

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33 ESV)

God’s commands may remind us that God is Sovereign and we are not, but they should not be a burden which we rail against.  At the same time God rules over us, he loves us, and offers us the best path to wholeness and maturity, both within ourselves and in our relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have invited us into their fellowship.  Lawgiver and Friend.

So, what am I leaving out of this conception?  What have I missed?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What Only God Can Do

The Spirit of God showed up in our worship gatherings yesterday in a manner which I have seen occasionally, and which still always catches me by surprise.

Our focus in worship was celebrating the love of God, in particular through the lens of 1 John 3:1-3, which shows us how God’s love causes God to call people his children, and to make it so.  We are made part of the fellowship (koinonia)of God and of Jesus the Son, which begins the process of changing us into something entirely beyond our imagination – the image of Jesus himself.  We talked about the joy of being adopted by God into his family, and the way adoption is such a beautiful human way to emulate God.  We even remembered the joyous adoption of a little girl into one of our families in the last two years.

But what I did not remember – until Tony and Cristina reminded me after worship – was that yesterday was the two-year anniversary of that blessed adoption of Alicia.  Totally unplanned on my part.

We also talked about the power of God to set us free from the brokenness of the world in changing us into the image of his Son, which begins now but will be completed when we see Jesus:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2 ESV)

Celebrating being set free and changed also came up after the service, when Fred Stockmeier pointed out to me that yesterday was the 67th anniversary of the day he was set free from a prison camp near the end of the Second World War.  Again, I had no idea – but the Holy Spirit of God knew what a perfect day this was to celebrate being set free, and to give thanks for being adopted into the family of God.

The most high-minded plans I ever make to try to craft worship with movements and coherence and thematic unity can’t hold a candle to the movement of God beneath it all, gathering us into this place together, young and old, to let the Word speak into our lives and bring us into his story.

May I never forget it.

My Friends Might Not Like This

On this past Monday, I had the pleasure of attending an event at Wheaton College called “A Conversation on Unity in Christ’s Mission”.  If you missed the event and are interested, you can watch it here.  My friend John Armstrong and Francis Cardinal George spoke honestly, thoughtfully, and graciously together.  They understand a great deal about the matters about which Protestants (particularly, here, Evangelicals) and Catholics disagree.  They know in detail the histories of these disagreements, and the shapes they have taken over time, far better than the overwhelming majority of Protestants and Catholics who look on each other with suspicion or contempt.

In the introductory comments Cardinal George made on Monday night, he said something which shocked me.  He noted that for a long time the experience of Catholics in America has been “try to keep your head down”, because it has not been clear that the Catholic practice of Christianity has been welcome out in the open.  Granting that I’ve lived my whole life after Vatican II, and that I’ve lived it as a somewhat sheltered Protestant Evangelical, I did not recognize the degree to which Catholics have been made to feel like outsiders in the American public square.  Once I thought about it, though, I realized that even now, after all that time, and in a time when no Christian practice is clearly welcomed in the public square, Anti -Catholicism is still the last acceptable prejudice (as Phillip Jenkins put it in a book that only made it through one edition).  And from the Protestant side of the field, I’ve started to recognize that some of our presuppositions about the difference and distance between “us” and “them” are seriously flawed.  I’m going to begin to articulate some of those flawed understandings, but certainly won’t create an exhaustive list, at least not in this post.

Before I spell out what’s wrong with my team, I want to make it explicit that I do this because I think it is consistent with the teaching of Jesus:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but ado not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:3-5 ESV)

So, before I can even begin to consider a critique of my Catholic brothers, I need to recognize the weaknesses and deficiencies in my own theology and practice.  As I sat to write these very words, I realized that I was already skipping a step.  See, I wanted to write to you about the faulty presuppositions we use when we critique Catholic faith, so we could correct our errors, and then perhaps move on to more soundly-reasoned criticism.  However, even now the Spirit convicts me that the real first step is abandoning our critique of the other, so that we can focus our full attention on our own flawed grasp of who God is and what God is doing in the world.  In essence, it calls for me to simply stop here – to tell you that you and I need to forget about critiquing Catholics (or Arminians, or Calvinists, or…whoever offends you with their “imperfect” Christian faith), just drop it here, and turn our attention to seeing where our own faith is ignorant, or idolatrous, or insufficiently thought out or lived out.  Reaching for our brother’s eye is so often, and maybe most of the time, and maybe even all of the time, an effort to distract ourselves from the fact that we don’t know it all, and God is engaging in a gigantic, gracious act of condescension to even listen to us.  What we don’t know, quite literally, could fill the universe.  If there are multiverses, it could fill them, too.

Now, of course, the problem is that I’m never going to get it all.  I’m always going to have blind spots, and so are you.  And for some, this means we never get past the work of introspection to the work of offering gracious, edifying critique.  Of course, this too can be a trap: “listen, I’m not going to talk about your stupid ideas about ___________(fill in the blank as you see fit), and since I’m not going to, you’re not going to tell me about how I forgot the first 1,500 years of church history, and we’re all going to back out of this room and leave each other alone.”  That’s not going to work, either.  We need something in between.  So, a modest proposal: we consider the idea that when we want to critique a particular area of someone’s faith or practice, we first examine our own beliefs and practices in that particular area to see what ways we have been foolish or insufficient.  Then, recognizing that we still might be spectacularly wrong, we humbly proceed in conversation, ready throughout to hear the other side explain what we have misunderstood about their faith and practice. Does that sound like too much work?  In the instant-criticism, “shoot first ask questions later” world, maybe it is.  It seems like the least we can do.

So, let me start with one, simple statement of one issue Protestant Evangelicals seem to overlook in their attempt to critique Catholicism.  I’m not even going to fully explain it in this post. Next time, I’ll pick up there, and we’ll build from there, if our stomachs can handle it.  Here it goes:

Most Protestants don’t seem to recognize that the playing field of the disagreement between Protestants and Catholics has changed, a lot, in the last 400 years.  And while a lot of the change has happened on the Catholic side, much more has happened on the Protestant side.  There’s a good chance the original Protestants would not have recognized what we’re doing when we’re being American Evangelical Protestants.  I’m not sure, if those people were given a choice between siding with “us” and siding with “them”, if they would all choose “us”.  

Yeah, that seems like a good place to leave the conversation for now.

Preaching about Singing, Singing about Suffering

Yesterday’s sermon came out of Jeremiah 31:31-34. It’s a passage of hope and beauty about the New Covenant. It’s also a text that’s pointing the reader forward. The original recipients, exiled Judah, were being pointed to a promise that even though they were going back into a wilderness, there was going to be something of God for them on the other side. In fact, there would be something better; unfortunately for them, we’re still waiting for that something. For us, too, we are wilderness walkers, even the best of us, on our way to a place where God’s law courses through our veins and worship is worship, not 3 songs and a prayer that we might learn something new from the preacher today.

So, having looked at that text yesterday and still steeping in it today, I was caught by surprise to realize that i was listening to the old song “Wilderness” by The Choir, one of my favorite bands since, well, pretty much forever, as far as musical tastes go. Here’s the chorus:

Is your faith so right
Are you so blessed
Everybody wanders in the forest
Is your heart so true
Are you that good
Everybody wanders in the woods
Everybody wanders in the forest
Everybody wanders in the wilderness

It’s true. Every one of us. Thank you, God, that we’re not alone.