the dream of Christian community

In thinking about Christian community and the barriers to experiencing it, a friend wrote to me:

I think most Christians share the desire for community you talk about, but, as you allude to, a conditional version. You mention these conditions as barriers to community. Either it is a community made up of a particular subset of people (i.e. those they are not repulsed by)… or it is something they work to create, not just participate in (i.e. a problem to be solved). In thinking about these things I was reminded of this quotation from Bonhoeffer, which I find difficult.

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”

On one hand I know that Bonhoeffer is right, that our ideas can become barriers to that which we are trying to seek, but at the same time I don’t know how to pursue that community while at the same time laying aside that dream.

In response, I wrote the following…


Tentatively, I’d say that our approach or posture toward community will stem from our posture toward God.

I wonder if the family analogy might fit in well here. The (archetypal) family is defined by a certain inevitability: you’re inescapably bonded by blood. Your connection is fundamentally secure. In daily life, we might try to please our parents and our parents might try to please us, whether out of spontaneous love, obedience to principles, or the desire to be praised. The dynamics of actually trying to act like family to each other are what take up most of our conscious attention. But it’s all within the bounds of inevitability, and more particularly, the inevitable and undying love of parent for child. There’s a deep knowledge that at some level the parent’s love for the child is a one-way street, and that the main thing the child is doing is simply being loved. The anxiety of disappointing or losing the parent is thus relieved for the (again, archetypal) child. Within that context of receptive love arises all the “action” of family life.

If we experience that same sense of inevitability in our relationship with God — if our justification is by grace alone, if our fundamental posture is one of receptivity, if God is our Father in this way — that will be the context for the action happening in our spiritual lives. The dynamics of trying to please God (i.e. repentance) are real, but they’re grounded on security and inevitability (in contrast to, for example, the dynamics of trying to please a new boy/girlfriend, where the anxiety to prove oneself and the liberty to leave is dominant). Which is why the passive reception of the Eucharist has become so central in my spiritual life, because it “embodies” that posture so well.

Regarding Christian community, it seems that “active surrender” will happen in this same way. If our community is truly familial — if our terms of brother/sister are real — then the work of pleasing each other and forging bonds will happen and be dynamic, but it will happen on a foundation of inevitability.

So, then, the obvious question is how to create a community founded on family-style inevitability, or where to find such a thing. If only it were as easy as showing up at the nearest congregation and immediately living like family with everyone there.

On the other hand, maybe there is something to that. And I only say that, with reservation, because I’m thinking of an experience I had last week. Long story short, there was some serious awkwardness and mutual suspicion between me and a friend of mine from church. We were having coffee, only to talk about church “business,” when he eventually brought up the issues between us, in a direct and uncomfortable way. We talked it through for a long time and ended it by praying for each other. I walked away from that conversation thinking about how rare it is to have friendships like that, where because of shared commitments to a shared faith, and to shared values of forgiveness/patience/etc, and also shared commitments to the same small church, we were basically forced to work through our shit. All of those shared commitments put us in a position of familial inevitability. And that brought about a moment of tangible “community,” in the sense of that word that we all seem to be longing to use it.

Moments like that are rare. But I can’t think of any other contexts, besides family and friendships with Christians where there is a recognition of mutual responsibility, in which I’ve willingly stuck with someone it would be easier to drift away from, and in which actual resolution and redemption have come about as a result.

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generational losses & gains

The social commentary on my generation has already been prolific, and there is little to add in terms of the overarching trends, re: technology, identity politics, and mental health. So, here are just a few thoughts about what Millennial Christians seem to have both lost and gained, in comparison to our 20th century forebears. (Painting in broad strokes, of course.)

What We’ve Largely Lost

1. Doctrinal conviction.

Beliefs matter. They certainly impact life, and according to every religion, they impact the afterlife too. Whether God is a unity or a trinity, whether judgment day is real, whether our private actions matter in any transcendent sense – such questions deserve answers. Committed, convicted answers, even. Many of us are prepared to draw definitive lines on only a tiny fraction of the doctrines that former generations took for granted. Some attribute this to a fear of unpopularity or of causing offense, and that’s part of it. But I think it has more to do with our collective self-doubt. “What if I’m wrong?” And it feels more like a what-if-I’m-wrong than a what-if-we’re-wrong. Something about that personal assertion carries a lot of cultural baggage for us, and it leaves us with more grey areas than necessary.

2. Private religious practice as a legitimate barometer of spirituality.

Good ol’ Christian morals, like regular church attendance, private prayer, a sober lifestyle, and sexual chastity have slid a long way down the priorities list for us. Our recognition that such habits do not equate to godliness has overextended itself, so that we fail to see them as playing any major role in measuring the authenticity of our faith. This becomes especially problematic when we fault our churches or even God for our apathy, while ignoring the basic spiritual disciplines that have always sustained Christianity in personal lives.

What We’ve Gained

1. Better listening skills.

Young Christians seem to be much more willing to hear from other denominations and traditions. There seems to be less of a feedback loop, and more of an ecumenical spirit. Perhaps this is because unity and cross-pollination are more vital in the face of social marginalization than in times of social hegemony. I, personally, have been immensely helped and influenced by the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and liberal Protestant viewpoints that I’ve been exposed to, despite continuing disagreements. Our generation has also greatly benefited from our willingness to hear out the scientists, the mental health professionals, the Muslims, “the gays,” etc. Christian truth sometimes complements, sometimes disrupts, these other versions of reality, but in general we grow intellectually weaker by staying in the echo chamber and intellectually stronger when we engage constructively with the rest of the world.

2. The long-overdue disentanglement of “God” and “country.”

This could also be called “the long-overdue disentanglement of Christianity and the Republican Party.” Jesus never came to be an earthly messiah. He never founded any empires. For too long, American Christians have been looking for him to the build the American Dream (and, tacitly, the American Empire). They’ve tried to use laws, rather than the gospel, to make people moral. The current election has highlighted this generational divide in a painful way. Older Christians have largely made excuses for the appalling behavior and rhetoric of the Republican nominee, in the name of specific policies or (more often) in the name of defeating his opponent, while younger Christians have been baffled and disturbed by this willingness to compromise the reputation of the faith for the sake of politics. Few would call America a “Christian nation” anymore, and many of us see this as a move in a much more Christlike direction.

3. A more holistic approach to engaging with society.

It’s amazing to me how many of my friends – the majority, easily – aspire to “do good” in their career aspirations, much more than they aspire to “do well” financially. Young Christians seem to have a solid grasp of how the gospel impacts all areas of life and all parts of creation. Christ’s influence on our public allegiances is not relegated to our opinions on abortion or gay marriage. His love for us drives us to the edges of our comfort zones: racially, economically, geographically, for the victims, for the sexual minorities, for the undeserving poor. That impacts our politics, our career goals, our decisions about where to live, and our choices about who we marry, or if we marry.

What Neither Generation Seems To Have Figured Out, Yet

1. The difference between the love and affirmation.

Our parents’ generation couldn’t affirm, so they didn’t love. Because of that we think that we can’t love unless we also affirm. Yes, I’m thinking primarily of the “how should the Christians deal with the gays?” question. Notice how the question itself presupposes two distinct groups at play, with little crossover. Neither generation has answered that question in anything like a satisfactory way, if you value love and truth at the same time, or if you value pastoral care even a little bit.

I would love to hear feedback on this.

What else have we Millennials lost, gained, or not yet tackled?

 

femininity (en)couraged: part 2

Last time, I wrote about our unfortunate tendency to discourage femininity, in both men and women, and to overvalue stereotypical masculine traits. This time, I want to investigate the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth exemplifies both masculinity and femininity in a striking balance. This balance is one toward which we all, male and female, ought to strive.

Jesus disdained vanity, whether vain displays of masculine “strength” or vain displays of feminine “beauty.” He redefined both strength and beauty in a way that undercuts our tired use of both for self-promotion. He told Peter to put down his sword:

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52

And he told us to stop worrying about our clothes:

And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin… Matthew 6:28

His definition of both strength and beauty is summarized in the beatitudes: poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and endurance through persecution. Taken together, these are the antidotes to vanity in all its forms.

Jesus was gentle with women and men and abrasive with women and men, basing his responses to people not on their gender or status but on his discernment of their motives. He demanded the same things from women as from men, and from members of all classes without differentiation: repentance and faith. No difference existed between his level of engagement with the important male of high religious standing in John 3 and the uneducated, foreigner female in John 4. In both cases Jesus discusses theological controversy with an equal level of interest, revealing deep spiritual truth to each one. He called both women and men to discipleship, neither patronizing women nor hyper-focusing on men.

And Jesus said [to the woman caught in adultery], “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? …Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” John 8:10-11

Then Jesus answered [the Canaanite woman], “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:28

Jesus was equally “emotional” and “rational.” He wept openly, being “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” at the sight of his friend Mary’s grief (John 11:34-35). Yet he was never carried away by emotion, instead maintaining control even when provoked by unconscionable injustice:

Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death… But Jesus remained silent. Matthew 26:59, 63

He valued “feminine” displays of tenderness above “masculine” competition. When a “sinful woman” barged in on a dinner party at which Jesus was a guest and began to anoint, kiss, and weep over his feet, he praised her as being more exemplary than his prestigious host. Her action had no economic, political, or public value of any kind, and was in that sense purely symbolic, yet Jesus treasured it.

Jesus blows apart our artificial binary between masculine and feminine virtues. For Christians, the only virtues are Christ-like ones. He is humanity at its best, for men and women alike. Thus, he exhibits the best of what we ignorantly consider “masculine” (e.g. strength, directness, courage, rationality) and “feminine” (e.g. gentleness, care, tenderness, emotionality), and he draws no line between them.

We ought to look to Jesus, studying his life and praying to him for help, as we seek to correct the imbalance between masculinity and femininity in our churches and in our lives.

Your Love In My Pocket

I’ve got your love in my pocket, ready

for when I get nervous at church,

unsure how to talk to good people.

When I was younger I kept it chained

’round my neck like a locket,

shiny and pretty good-looking.

Ask me, I dared you, sincerely,

bold in an ignorant way;

now I’m more wise and less happy

and I’ve got much less to say.

Pain helped me shut up and listen

and distrust the glistening things

and ignore the rambunctious laughter

and cherish the caged bird who sings.

Then I wore your love like a bracelet,

dangling, obstructing my actions, and

right in the middle of everything.

That made me stop and be patient

enough to be present in more things

but still threatened when in a crowd,

your love vulnerable to their thieving.

At some point my hands quit performing

and found themselves needing a cave,

a warm place to rest and be restless,

a hiding spot, sheltered and safe.

So I’ve got your love in my pocket,

ready to hold my hand tightly.

When You Left

When you left, I could hear you from across town.

Sure, she was a stinging drink that smacked you awake —

some girls are like that —

but slurring, stumbling is no good for steering.

When that door closed, it was you who closed it;

you, or God.

Not us.

 

Ten months later and I watch you at the coffee shop.

How are you, fine, I miss you, dear —

some words are like that —

but halting, hesitant is no good for hearing.

When that door opens, it’s you who’ll open it;

you, or God.

We’re waiting.

A Moment Of Freedom

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For Kelvin

He comes in late. He comes in hungry.

The words on the screen flash by too fast, usually.

Fourteen years old. Learning to read.

He’s not one for raising his voice–not musically.

 

They say “stand up.” He gets up slowly.

Finally a song where he knows the words, mostly.

Comes here a lot. Feels pretty safe.

Some people who love him are praising God, vocally.

 

They say “mercy.” They say “forgiveness.”

Jesus does seem to be sane, in this craziness.

What of his sisters? What of his hunger?

This might be his first time believing in innocence.

 

He hums the tune. He looks to the sides.

Others are singing with raised hands and closed eyes.

Is Jesus here? Is Jesus hearing?

A lyric escapes him, he lets it, his voice climbs.

 

He is a boy. He lives like a man.

More years will pass before there’s no fist in his hand.

But here and now? A moment of freedom.

Thinking of Jesus, he sings out, loud as he can.

go it alone

Could you?

When he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. -Paul, Galatians 1:15-17

There is a duality in Jesus’ calling. It is to us as a body, as a group, to follow him together as partners and “members” of one another. We remember what Paul said:

For the body does not consist of one member but of many… God arranged the members in the body, each of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 1 Corinthians 12:14, 18-20

Every Christian, therefore, must think of him- or herself as one small part of a larger collective; one citizen in God’s nation, one child in God’s family, one part of Christ’s body. We must pray to our Father in heaven, sharing him between us. No Christian is an island, and God forbids that we attempt it.

Jesus calls to us as a group, but as individuals as well. Paul said that when God first called him, he “did not immediately consult with anyone”–he heard the Lord’s voice speaking to him alone, finding himself terrifyingly alone with the Lord. When Jesus appeared to him in the vision that would define his life, although several friends accompanied him, only Paul could see Jesus clearly (Acts 9:7) and understand the words he spoke (Acts 22:9). He was alone.

“Are we alone with Him now, or are we taken up with little fussy notions, fussy comradeships in God’s service, fussy ideas about our bodies? Jesus can expound nothing until we get through all the noisy questions of the head and are alone with Him.” -Oswald Chambers, “My Utmost For His Highest”

Right now, I am in a stage of life in which many of my peers and closest friends are moving away from the apparently endless possibilities of affluent youth and into commitments which are marking out the territories of their futures. For me, it’s bittersweet. They are not following divinely inspired plans or timelines that God dropped out of heaven, but they are bravely following God’s leading as well as they can. That’s the sweet part. As I try to do the same thing, listening to Jesus calling me in my aloneness with him, I see him leading me away from them and the lives they are beginning to build. He forces me to ask myself if I am willing to go it alone with no one from my past, with only his voice calling out from a few paces ahead.

A romanticized sense of adventure is well and good for those few who can afford to pursue it. But it is not good enough to sustainably change the course of a life or separate an individual from the tribe. Only the all-constraining voice of Christ is good enough for that, when he speaks to you alone and you can’t mistake his intended audience as anyone but yourself.

When that happens, no one can help you. Don’t bother consulting with anyone else, at first, or going to those who heard that same voice before you. First you must go to Christ–not to the capital but to the desert, not to the congregation but to the prayer closet. Can you be alone with him? Find that out before you find out anything else. If you can, nothing can touch you. No change will destroy you and no loss will remove anything from you. You are invincible in Christ.

I think that’s at least part of what Jesus was getting at when he said:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26-27

From that utter solitude with himself, the Lord leads us back to the crowd, back to the interdependent Church as it should be. Now we are fully his; now we are fully open to his sending; now we are fully free from fear, because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

meditations on exile (3): community is crucial

And [an angel] called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons… For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…” Revelation 18:2-4

Babylon. John, the author of Revelation, used it as a code word for Rome, the superpower of his time. In today’s world, “we” – the United States – are the superpower of the world, the economic, cultural, and political giant among the nations. Drunkenness? Sexual immorality? Luxury? Sound familiar?

The command to “come out of her” is an explicit sexual reference intended to make us blush. “Quit fornicating with the ways of the world,” God says. Without a euphemism.

We must ask, therefore: how do we, as citizens of God’s heaven and disciples of Jesus, live as we sojourn in Babylon? How is it that we “come out of” the ways of the world? The ways of America?

As always, it is helpful to look to biblical history for guidance. The actual city of Babylon was once the superpower of its age, promulgating paganism, trade, and tyranny across its empire. The prophets tell us that it was because of divine decree that the Babylonian empire included Israel. Nebuchadnezzar, the emperor of Babylon, ordered in the sixth century B.C. that all but the poor of Judea be exiled to Babylon.

That meant: God’s people, in Babylon, in the heart of the empire. The question the Jews were asking themselves at that time is the same kind of question we must ask ourselves today. For them, it was, “How do we practice the Torah, God’s law for us, in a pagan city, away from the promised land and the temple?”

The book of Daniel deals with this question, especially in chapters 1, 3, and 6.

But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank… Daniel 1:8

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego… said to the king… “Be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18

When Daniel knew that the document [banning for a month the worship of any god besides the king of Babylon] had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. Daniel 6:10

In each case, faithful Jews took their lives in their hands by maintaining the practice of their Israelite identity under the watchful eye of a dictatorial, pagan regime. And amazingly, in each case, the pagan king ended up baffled and in awe of the true God.

And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of [Daniel and his friends], he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom. Daniel 1:20

Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.” Daniel 3:28

Then King Darius wrote… “I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever…” Daniel 6:26-27

We make a difference when we stand out, not when we blend in.

For exiled Jews wishing to the live the Torah, from the sixth century B.C. to the present day, the necessity of living together in groups has been obvious. The laws of the Torah assume a context of community. A kosher diet alone requires a kosher farmer, a kosher butcher, and a kosher vendor. One cannot practice Orthodox Judaism in isolation.

Likewise, the commands of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament assume a context of community as the setting for the practice of the Christian life. By my pastor’s count, there are 49 “one another” commands in the New Testament: be at peace with one another, submit to one another, encourage one another, pray for each other, etc. And that doesn’t include the 10 repetitions of the command to “love one another” in John’s writings alone.

Exiled Jews needed each other to maintain their ritual purity and their commitment to monotheism. Sojourning Christians need each other to exhort one another in the gospel and to be the body of Christ to the world.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27

By the Holy Spirit of Jesus in us, the church is Christ to the world. You may be an eye, I may be a hand, but either way, we cannot function without each other. Close-knit, interdependent, mutually submissive, mutually confessional, mutually accountable community is crucial.

The biblical mindset is not “us against the world,” but us, in the world, different from the world, and therefore helpful to the world. Jesus said,

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

As it was for the Jewish exiles 2,600 years ago, it is our differences from the world around us that make us attractive and amazing to outsiders. Why be impressed at more of the same? More pettiness, more egoism, more infighting, more ignorance. We cannot be light by imitating darkness. We cannot be Jerusalem by participating in Babylon.

And Jerusalem is what we are: God’s city, God’s house, God’s children.

Your sister church here in Babylon sends you greetings… 1 Peter 5:13 (NLT)

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35

meditations on exile (2): relating to the host country

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ… Philippians 3:20

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 1 Peter 2:11

In the same way that so many Old Testament saints were forced to live in a land other than their homeland, followers of Jesus today are exiles and sojourners. We are not living in our hometown. As exiles, we know, “This is not our home, this is not our culture, this is not our ‘normal.'”

Suffering makes this easy to remember. Worldly happiness and comfortable lifestyles make it easy to forget. The church in America is living – rather, dying – under a deadly addiction. Christians used to call it “worldliness,” a word not used much anymore. Elsewhere in the world, in churches without guaranteed safety or enough Bibles to go around – much less AC, coffee bars, or sound systems – the church thrives. Grows, like crazy. Jesus’ name is savored; luxury is foreign.

We must not forget who we are. We are sojourners on the earth, waiting for our real home. As such, we must ask: how should we relate to our “host country,” i.e., the world around us? The New Testament bans from us several options:

It bans revolt, a temptation not common among American Christians who have been raised to pledge allegiance to the flag:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. Romans 13:1-2

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 1 Peter 2:13-15

Perhaps the first temptation is so rare because the second is so widespread. The New Testament also bans assimilation:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. Ephesians 4:17

Do not be conformed to this world, by be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental principles of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:8

The prophets, Jesus, and the apostles propose to us another option for living out our identities as aliens. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, authors of Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, a book I just read and very highly recommend, call this third option “revolutionary subordination,” an alternate route between assimilation and revolt.

The Sermon on the Mount, the classic name for Jesus’ speech in Matthew 5-7, outlines in unforgettable beauty what revolutionary subordination looks like for disciples in a world gone wicked.

“They say ‘don’t murder’? I say, anger is murder. Allow nothing to delay you from reconciliation. They say ‘don’t commit adultery’? I say, lust is adultery. Stop at nothing to avoid sinning. They say, ‘he got what he deserved’? I say, do not resist an evil person. They say, ‘love the good guys, hate the bad guys’? I say, love the people making your life miserable.” On and on. At every turn, it rebels against things as they are with nothing less than creative genius.

Claiborne and Shaw explain one, now proverbial, part of this magnificent sermon in a particularly insightful way. “Turn the other cheek” did not mean “let anyone who wants to beat you up.” Rather, it meant, “To the person who gives you a backhanded slap intended to insult, show them you would be willing to take even a punch in the face without retaliating. You love them too much. Shock them, and their conscience, with the patience of your grace.” “Give the shirt off your back” and “go the extra mile” in the following verses mean similar things.

That’s revolutionary subordination. It means to refuse to accept the ways of the world. To turn them completely inside out in a subversive kind of submission. In many ways, all of Jesus’ teachings are an elaboration on this theme. His lifestyle was its embodiment. For him, apparently, it worked. Why then do we doubt his methods?

The church must be a peculiar people, to borrow a phrase from Claiborne and Shaw’s book again. God forbids that we value the things America values; he forbids that we call idolatry cool and sensuality normal. For a citizen of heaven, sin is never normal. It is the one thing in God’s universe that is not normal, the one thing which perverts every other good thing.

Patriotism is not a virtue Jesus admired. Nationalistic pride is founded on demonstrations of strength and hero-worship. It is a far cry from the otherworldly statements of Jesus about the meek and the persecuted being the victors of the universe. Yes, the “unBeatitudes” make promises too, but they are miserable ones and utterly opposed to God.

American culture values many other things Jesus hates, like having pride in yourself, living in luxury while others live in poverty, and lying about who God is. To the extent our churches and lives succumb to this kind of thinking and living, to that extent we deny the Jesus we claim to imitate.

“Beloved, as sojourners and exiles…” the Bible urges us. We cannot forget who we are. We are not home, but we are homeward bound.

More next time.

it’s a family affair

Joining a church is not about joining a culture. It is about joining a family.

Nearly every time the New Testament writers talk about the church, they use familial labels. Peter, James, and Paul call the recipients of their letters “brothers and sisters”; John, an old man at the time of his epistle writing, uses the phrase “little children.” Jesus called his disciples “brothers” (e.g. Matthew 28:10). Paul told Timothy, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2). In other words, Paul told the young pastor to treat the members of his congregation as the members of his family.

One of the most important and beautiful teachings in the New Testament is that God is the father of Christians. He loves and cherishes them like a father cherishes his children, providing for their needs, disciplining them, patiently bearing with their faults, comforting them, always listening to their prayers. He is Abba, which in Aramaic means Papa, or Daddy (Galatians 4:6-7). Because of the amazing, unique father-child relationship that Christians have with God, Christians are, to each other, like siblings in a family (Matthew 23:8-9).

It is much easier for churches to act as social clubs than as a family, however, because family life on this earth is intrinsically messy and complicated.  Natural familial relationships are the most intimate and most permanent relationships on this earth. God’s family, the church, is the same, only more so. Earthly family bonds are not forever, but the church, the true believers of all times and places, will be united in worship for eternity.

Too often, churches are more like mini-cultural bubbles than they are like families. Church cultures are too often defined by social norms, accepted lingo, expected attire, musical styles, a preacher’s sense of humor. All these things are man-made. Artificial social expectations such as these are harmful both to those who do not “fit in,” as well as to those who, by fitting in, consider themselves safe with God. Jesus said:

So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commands of men.” Matthew 15:6-9
In the early days of the church, the biggest dividing wall was Jews vs. Gentiles. Jews considered themselves “safe,” because they had circumcision, the patriarchs for their ancestors, and the law. But Paul makes a magnificent statement in the second chapter of Ephesians, saying this:
But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us [Jews and Gentiles] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. Ephesians 2:13-16
In Jesus, through the cross, the superficial things that identify and divide us in this world, such as race, as in the 1st century church, or differences in culture and “personal preferences,” as today, become annulled. By dying, he broke down the dividing wall of hostility so that he might create one, unified body of people with equal standing in God’s family.This is the church:

  • an assembly of people, united by a common identity – redeemed by the blood of Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-14)
  • for a common purpose – to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23)
  • with a common mission – to call the world to repentance and belief in Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20)

Anything more is inevitably artificial. This therefore is the responsibility of the church, the family of God:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me”… Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:1-3, 7
And Christians, how has Christ welcomed us, brothers and sisters? He came to us as one of us, sympathizing with our weaknesses, tempted in every way yet without sin, touching lepers, eating with thieves and prostitutes, preaching peace, dying for his enemies, turning reprobates into sons and slaves into free people. Let’s do the same with each other. We are a family, after all.