CT’s Big Stories of 2010, Part 2

Yesterday we noted two of the stories cited by Christianity Today as the top ten happenings of 2010, selected for their potential for shaping evangelical life, thought, and culture. Those stories, #3 and #5, noted federal court decisions impacting hiring practices and membership in organizations. Another story, #4 on the list, also came from the political world, noting that in the midterm elections the number of pro-life democrats in the U. S. House of Representatives was cut in half. Conventional wisdom (is wisdom really conventional these days?) suggests that backlash over the health care bill outweighed all other considerations, as angry voters, including many conservative Christians, rushed to throw the rascals out. It would be ironic, if not tragic, that the pro-life movement will have inadvertently damaged its hopes of success.

The uneasy relationship between Christianity and politics is not confined to the United Sates. This is reflected in other stories included in CT’s list. Evangelical leaders from around the world gathered in Cape Town, South Africa to discuss religious liberty issues around the globe, an event identified as the second most important story. Relatedly, a story which did not make the list is unfolding in India, where movements to restrict religious freedom have gained some momentum in the national debate. This occurs at a time of significant tension with Pakistan and its Muslim majority, and increases in importance during a year during which India surpassed China as the most populous nation on earth.

Christian influence in politics was also a concern in Uganda. Though not exclusively motivated by Christians, a proposed bill in the nation’s legislature would punish homosexual acts with life imprisonment or even the death penalty. That drastic measure, made somewhat more understandable by the horrendous AIDS crisis in that region of the world, qualified as #7 on CT’s list. The magazine reports a division among evangelical leaders in other parts of the world, notably in the USA.

One other story, #10 in the countdown, has political implications. It revolves around Terry Jones, the pastor of a small Florida congregation, who made national and international headlines with his promise to burn a copy of the Qur’an in protest of the planned Muslim Center near Ground Zero in New York City. Many questions arise from this story. Among them are the following: Does the government have the right or the responsibility to step in and stop an act of free speech in the interest of public safety; is this a legitimate form of protest for a Christian to make to the situation; what authority does anyone have over a Christian who proclaims himself a pastor; does this man have any responsibility for the reputation of all Christians, many of whom strongly disagree with his intentions?

I suspect we shall never be without such stories at the end of any year until the return of Christ. It is inevitable for a faith which, rightly in my view, does not confine itself to the private recesses of the one’s mind or heart. Ours is a faith which carries implications for all of life, including how we conduct ourselves in the broader society. The difficulty will always be in making and respecting a distinction between having a biblical view of matters and using political means of enforcing them on the world as a whole. For the secular world, everything is politics; for the Christian, however, everything is under different authority and different power–that of the Holy Spirit of God. How we respect that distinction is open to question and debate. Comments welcome.

What’s the Big Theostory of 2010?

Christianity Today recently published its list of the Top Ten stories of the nearly completed year. Its selections will differ markedly from those of major news outlets, but they were chosen for a different purpose. As the editors state, the choices were made on the basis of potential for significant impact on evangelical life, thought, or mission. I’d like to discuss some of these “top ten” impact stories in the next couple of days.

Today’s discussion comes from the stories listed as #3 and #5 on the editors’ list, both involving federal court cases. In the first of these, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of World Vision to dismiss employees who are not orthodox Christians. In the latter case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Christian Legal Society chapter at Hastings College of the Law must abide by the school’s policy under which all positions in the organization must be open to all students, even those who oppose the group’s core values.

With regard to the former case, the question centers on whether or not the work of an organization such as World Vision is harmed or enhanced by the active participation of non-believing persons. An adverse ruling might have had an eventual impact on local churches as well. It is not the only such case, but the decision may well be influential in deciding others. Legally, the question seems to focus on a person’s right to employment (not a clear matter in itself) vs. the right of a private charity to control who works for and represents it.

The latter case is interesting in that it seems odd that students would be so antagonistic toward any organization as to infiltrate it with the intent of subverting it. Do law students really have time to bother with such things? But again, it may be in the precedent setting impact that this ruling will matter, especially as it comes from the highest court in the land. The fact that the school has the open policy for all organizations it sanctions may eventually be lost in the use of the ruling. Should Christians protest by joining atheist student groups in sufficient numbers to garner leadership positions?

The common thread, I suggest, is the level favor granted to individual freedom vis-a-vis organizational integrity. On the surface it’s a tie as far as the rulings are concerned. Maybe there’s more to it; the fact that the respective cases went as far as they did tells us that some people certainly think so. And the editors at CT seem to be among them in the making of their top story selections. What do you think? Do you see something brewing about which Christians should be affected one way or the other? Or what do you think about the rulings themselves? I’d like to hear what you think about the #3 and #5 top stories of 2010.

View from the Bottom

Whenever we attempt to draw a picture of the kingdom of God we are at a distinct disadvantage. Some of the reasons for that disadvantageous perspective are obvious, beginning with the fact that virtually none of us knows the slightest thing about living a real “kingdom” complete with absolute monarch whose word is law and whose law is his word. Even to the extent we can imagine such a state of affairs, I suspect we usually do not see ourselves on the bottom rung of the society subject to this king. Few picture themselves as belonging to serfdom, in spite of the odds against any one of us being located elsewhere.

And that may be another aspect of our difficulty in thinking well about kingdoms, either of God or of the world we actually see around us. It is difficult for us to avoid singing the cowardly lion’s song–“If I Were the King of the Forest.” We want to structure things, we want to make it all different, we want to decide who plays what roles and who remains in the places we assign them. Little do we realize the extent to which, like all human machinations, we are unpossessed of the wisdom to do it well; as a result, to the extent that we do actually order things in keeping with our desires, we go astray and turn others to their own defensive and retaliatory ways. (yes, “Messiah” is playing as I write this)

Advent is about the anticipation of a king who does not order things for his own well-being, but for that of his citizens. While possessing all power and wisdom, he is primarily about love and justice. Those are qualities which are most desired by the serfs of the kingdom, for in all other orderings of affairs, they are the most tangibly lacking. The everyday relationships now dominated by someone else’s thirst for power and control will be under the authority of the ruler who carries lambs in his arms, yet destroys enemies by the word of his mouth. No army required, no social services employed.

I have a strong suspicion that this is what people really do long for–the kind of world in which righteousness reigns. We should not fault the desires of those who wish to create it here and now, but we should beware of their attempts to do so without first submitting to the coming king. Otherwise, the best of promises either go unfulfilled or turn into greater occasions for suffering than those they deigned to relieve. If these thoughts in any way make the coming of this king more appealing, celebrate. He came once; he’ll do it again.

Shakable Kingdoms

It’s somewhat standard fare for Christian preaching to point out the short-comings of the things to which people give their lives, either deliberately or by default. All of this preaching is meant to clarify the contrast between seeking an outcome for life that lasts and outcomes that do not. It’s a true tragedy to dedicate one’s life to a goal and find upon attaining it that it wasn’t worth it. And it’s important that Christian teaching continue to do this; biblical doctrine takes on meaning and impact when it exposes ideas people either hold already or are being encouraged to embrace by the secular culture or by competing avenues of spiritual fulfillment.

In preparation for a sermon on Hebrews 12, culminating in v. 28 and the reference to an unshakable kingdom, those thoughts readily come to mind. There’s a slightly different set of thoughts which also begs for attention. A couple of recent posts have mentioned Brent McCracken’s book Hipster Christianity, in which the author surveys different new ways of “being Christian” in today’s world—ways which mark Christianity as “cool” or “hip.” Identifying himself as a participant in the movement, he then turns to a critique which begins to sound rather surprisingly wary thereof. In the end, he questions the wisdom and longterm effect of connecting an eternal faith to the shifting whims of popular culture and its need to be edgy, somewhat defiant, and ever in flux. The need for constant change owes to the fact that marketing pays attention to what is cool, turning it into the style de jour, which then renders it uncool. Is that any way to build a ministry?

McCracken’s critique has some obvious implications. Like several other recent and not-so-recent authors, he ends with a plea for the church to know what it really is, what it is called to be, and to accept its counter-cultural nature (which turns out to make it cool) as its calling, not as something to be shed in the name of relevance. His discussion opens the questioning of what we are holding onto, what we are aiming for, and will count as reliable measurements of whether or not we are succeeding.

In terms of the passage alluded to above, what is there in the church, missional, emergent, traditional or otherwise, that places too much stock in the things that are shakable; and what are those things, practices, and other non-negotiables which belong to the unshakable kingdom God has in store? Or is it possible that nothing at all will endure as part of the eternal kingdom? What are your thoughts?

The Great Escape or the Great Embrace?

Every now and then we come to the realization that the world isn’t buying what the church is selling. Right?

In some ways, it is true; in others it is false to assume a positive answer to the premise. In important ways, we may have used entirely wrong metaphors—the gospel is not a commodity to be consumed at all, and we have erred seriously in considering it to be so. That error, by the way, did not begin with the Emerging Church or Hipster Christianity; but that discussion is for another time.

In reflecting on and preparing to preach from the Advent texts which refer to the Second Advent, it dawned on me that much of the evangelical heritage, from the revivalists onward (and maybe long before that period) has “sold” an incomplete image of its own “product.” In short, we have sold escape rather than embrace. From Jonathan Edwards’ (in)famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and many copycats ever since, we have often given the impression that Christianity is primarily about avoiding hell.

Let’s be clear: the message of a coming divine judgment is unavoidable if one takes the Bible seriously. There is more than sufficient reason to be aware of the coming destruction of all unredeemed things, ideas—and people. However, there is almost always a huge BUT along with the warning of the coming catastrophe. And that BUT holds out the certainty of an unshakable kingdom, a new heaven and new earth, where righteousness dwells. The biblical authors consistently encourage readers to think of the best they can image and have faith that God will bring it to fruition. This hope, not the fear of hell, is what they use as incentive toward holy and godly living, self-denial, and loving demonstration of the face and character of God.

We live in an increasingly cynical world. It is cynical because it has exhausted its resources in trying to create the future God has promised, but without reference to Him, and often in outright defiance of Him. It has held out promises which cannot be fulfilled, include the destruction of all the “other” people, remove the dignity of the image of God, and deny access to all but the elite members of a dominant group. Not exactly where righteousness dwells. N. T. Wright was “surprised” by the hope the gospel offers; and it is hope–in the face of destruction–that the world just might “buy.” In its cynicism, the threat of meaninglessness and destruction is rather hollow; the world already experiences those things.

Do we stop at the warnings too quickly, without moving on to the hope and promise of better things? Does the church in your experience speak more about the great escape from hell or more about the great hope to be embraced, for the sake of which we can indeed take up our cross and follow Jesus?

Worship as Preparation?

Whenever I look out toward a congregation on a Sunday morning I pray silently that God would change a life, encourage a struggling soul, find a seeker, confirm a faithful saint, or keep a foot from stepping onto a dangerous and downward path. Occasionally I am blessed to find that these and other evidences of the Holy Spirit’s powerful and life changing work in the context of worship truly occur, if not always in dramatic or spoken ways.

It is also the case that as I participate in the service of the word I have been among those most significantly moved by that Word, sometimes even as I speak it. God’s Spirit strikes a chord that was not touched in the preparation, yet resonates in the soul in the speaking, sometimes with conviction, sometimes with assurance, and at others with hope and joy, most of which is not apparent to the listeners in other than in the most subtle of ways. On other occasions a hymn or the reading of the Scripture, a prayer or a request, an offertory, or just the sight of people who give the distinct impression in the momentary glimpse that they “get it” or that they desperately need it—all convey that the Holy Spirit is there with a purpose far beyond my ability or desire to manage.

My point in relating these experiences is that worship is one of the most dangerous and life-changing activities we can engage in, and perhaps the most significant. It is where those things which will survive the fire of judgment take place. It is the seemingly pointless use of a Sunday morning which could otherwise be allocated to so many endeavors, either making a dent in or adding to our “to do” lists. But I cannot think of many things on those lists which will not be consumed. It isn’t a matter of good or bad, accomplished or strained, trendy or stodgy, high or low with respect to music, attire, setting, and liturgical style, though we all have our preferences. It is a matter of presenting ourselves in company with others, bound to the Lord to prepare for doing the things that matter now and forever; it’s about being molded and shaped according to those things and for their manifestation in our lives.

Count me among the hopelessly idealistic if you must; but do not forsake the assembling of yourselves, as is the habit of way too many. It’s the surest form of preparation for Christ’s coming.

A Pattern of Patience

Every now and then it dawns on me how skewed a vision we have of God. Granted, there are those who will never countenance such a suggestion, or who will wonder why someone who teaches theology would ever be uncertain enough about God to have room for such an admission. I’m not speaking about the teachings found in the historic creeds which summarize the Bible, however; their portrayal of God’s nature and purposes will always hold.

But as we interact with a world only partially, or even minimally, impacted by a biblical portrayal of the way things are, we unknowingly take on some of those “other” ideas. It happens gradually, imperceptibly. Graciously, God jolts us on occasion with fresh realizations of the truth. For many people, for instance, the picture of God is of a foot-tapping, arms folded, frown bearing old codger who cannot wait until the day he has appointed for judgment. On that day he will no longer have to put up with the troublesome evil-doers who are finally going to get what’s coming to them, an event which will bring whatever measure of joy to his heart that he can handle–which may not be much. It’s a very impatient sort of God; rather vindictive as well. It’s the sort of caricature several of the “new” atheists like to hold up for ridicule.

Holding this sort of picture of God does not make his coming a very attractive event, even for those who believe. Preparing for the coming of this type of God would be a joyless undertaking indeed; as an incentive toward holiness it falls quite short.

Think, however, of the 2Peter 3 passage which has been under consideration for most of the current week. God is “holding off” his judgment, not impatiently waiting for it. He is patient because He wants people to come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved from that judgment. Rather than delighting in the destruction of those who commit evil (a rather inclusive group), He extends the time in which they might recognize that truth and turn to it.

I want to suggest that part of our preparation during Advent should consist of an attitude inspection regarding those who are indifferent or even hostile toward God. If our holiness is to be a reflection of His, we will need to check our thoughts and desires toward those outside of Christ. We will need to adopt the patient ways of our Father, in hopes that some will indeed change their hearts and minds in whatever time remains for them and for the world as a whole. Many a parent has done so with their wayward children; what about the children of our heavenly Father? Do we need to adopt a more patient and loving heart toward them in preparing ourselves for his coming?

Coming, But When?

Advent is about preparing for a coming king. We prepare to celebrate Christ’s first arrival in this world of ours even as we anticipate a future coming, one which will change everything as we know it—so much so that it can only be described in apocalyptic terms. Preparation for that event consists of attending to the holiness of our lives. There are actions, attitudes, and desires that will not survive judgment; it would be wise for us to remove them now, replacing them with a focus on those things which will shine.

Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect something is just a little unrealistic about our approach to the coming of Christ. We cannot put ourselves into the frame of mind of Bethlehemites in the first century; and we really should stop trying and certainly we should stop preaching toward this impossible end. And try as we might, we have a hard time visualizing what has not yet occurred, something so totally without precedent that we only think we can imagine it. These two seemingly insurmountable factors probably mitigate against a sense of urgency over the preparation Advent has historically called for. It’s quite understandable. The pursuit of a more consistently holy life can wait. After all, there’s shopping to be done.

But what if we became more attentive to the comings of God into our lives, communities, and nations on a different level? The literal meaning of ‘advent’ is “coming near or toward.” How often does God come near us, come toward us? More pertinently, how many times have we been prepared for Him to do so? And how many times might we have missed out on because we thought the preparation to be a low priority?

We believe in a triune God, whose appearances occur in the person of the Holy Spirit with far greater frequency that we are aware of. Many people have been used in mighty ways when God has decided to show up in an unsuspecting world, leaving it much the same for some people but totally transformed for others. I think that’s the value of the stories we rehearse from the gospel narratives, not only around Christmas but throughout the life and ministry of Jesus. And not only there, but in the first century world to which that good news of God’s coming was announced. And ever since.

Atheist apologists think they have a powerful argument against the church of Christ when they point to all of the uglier moments in the history of Christianity. We can dispute the reading of history they provide on another occasion. But these objections fail to note the evidence of God showing up and changing the world is indisputably linked to the church, as I was reminded while reading Hipster Christianity. Hospitals, orphanages, universities, homes for the aged and infirm, and other institutions in the west all have their origins in the ministry of the church. And they happened not in a flash, but in moments when God showed up in the lives of people and places who were prepared for his coming toward them. They were people who prayed and expected God to answer.

There’s That Four-Letter Word Again

There’s no getting around it. As believers who are serious about preparing for the coming of the Lord, there is a word which does describe what we are aiming for. And it isn’t an obscure word as far as the New Testament is concerned, occurring in the writings of all of its authors. We seem to have an aversion to the use of this word, unless it is used in reference to God. In that sense it is frequently sung, often repetitiously as a single-word lyric. (I’ll refrain from comment on that phenomenon)

But when we apply the word, holy, to people we usually are met with cool reception at best. It is not too far a stretch to note that many people respond more negatively to this word than they do to far less meaningful words of the same length—the profane ones which litter conversations in almost every corner of our culture. Even where these have been tolerated, the word ‘holy’ still meets with furrowed brow or rolled eye.

We’re all aware of the stereotypical “holy” person. And stereotypes do arise for a reason. But at times I wonder whether this particular one is not abused beyond reasonable extent. For every holier-than-thou person who indeed wears a dubious claim as a badge, I suspect that there are far more people who need the stereotype in order to justify their own disinterest in or hostility toward their own sanctification. For every prideful claim of holiness, that is, there may be an untold number of those taking a perverse pride in being less holy than thou.

Perhaps I’m missing something. I’d like to open a discussion today on what readers and followers of this blog think of when they hear “holy” used as a descriptor persons. How do we hear the command (itself a dirty word to many) to be holy in preparation for the coming of the Lord? I’d like to hear from you.