Friday, January 31, 2014

Child-Like Faith

One of my habits the last few years has been to read through the four Gospels in the month of January.  I usually end up teaching my students out of these books during the first part of the year, and it helps me re-focus on the person of Jesus.

As I have been reading this year, I have been struck by the need for simplicity in faith.  I know child-like faith is one of those things you hear about and learn about if you grow up in the church. It certainly wasn't a new concept for me.  I'm not completely sure why, but this year it especially hit me hard. It could be because I spend more time with young children than I ever have before. Or, it could have been prompted by the things I am dealing with in my own life as I get older- after all, I'm 31 now and that's old and stuff... Maybe the whole issue of people leaving the church from my generation and the younger generation has been on the back of my mind.

Maybe it's a little bit of all of those things.

Blogs like this one, from the Barna group, attempt to try to help bridge the gap between faith and unbelief in these groups.  I think the Barna group and many other Christians are trying to do a good job of reaching out to the "Nones" and other young people who are walking away from faith.  However, I often come away from the many sides of this debate just feeling hollow and a little hopeless.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I believe in the ability of the Holy Spirit to change lives. I also believe God can create miracles where nothing appears to be happening on the outside of a person.  It's just that I am not sure we, the church, are getting at the heart of the problem in all of our solutions. I think we need one solution- Jesus.

Sometimes my students get tired of that answer. It sounds trite at times, but I'm serious, we need more Jesus.  I know I need more Jesus in my life.

In Luke 20, Jesus has finally reached Jerusalem after an extended time of travel which included plenty of parabolic teaching.  At this point, the religious leaders and Jesus start to clash even more than they had previously (as if Jesus' judgments on them earlier in the book weren't enough of a clue, it starts to get real now). Compare Luke 2:41-52 with Luke 20:1-8 if you want to see something interesting in the buildup of tension between the religious leaders and Jesus in this Gospel. As the chapter closes, Jesus points out a fatal flaw in their lives, everything they do is "just for show" (Luke 20:47 HCSB).

Some people reading this might get all excited because they see the vanquishing of religion in favor of relationship. That is a really popular one these days too. I've seen it from people who don't claim to be followers of Christ as well as those who do.  From Christians, the sentiment recently spawned things like this video. 

I'm still feeling hollow and a little bit hopeless after watching the video. Maybe you're not, maybe it inspired you. I doubt I'm the only one though. You know why?  Religion in and of itself is not a bad thing, I realize Mark Driscoll and many others would disagree with me.  

The reason I don't believe religion, in and of itself is a bad thing? Jesus was religious (explain the Lord's supper to me without it), he just wasn't falsely religious. I think kids understand the difference implicitly.  Rarely can a child explain things as perfectly as an adult, but they know the difference in their gut.

By the way, I happen to hate false religion too.  I think the whole religion vs. Jesus thing might be a topic for another day, but it was important to point out the false dichotomy a lot of people are trying to use.  The false choice is this- Jesus or religion. In this scenario, religion is trying to usurp the power of the Gospel, grace, and love of God.  Religion, here, is just a man-made way to reach up at God with rules, regulations, lists, etc. It's all about power and Jesus is about servant-hood.

There is another way to consider religion. Religion can be a teacher. It is something which helps us make sense of the world, provide a little order, and even a little beauty. Would I ever consider building a cathedral? Nope. Do I think that some of the architects who designed the beautiful cathedrals of the world were offering up worship to God in their designs? Yes, yes I do. Were these designs and even their intentions formed out of religion. Sure. Was it still worship. Probably.

Here, it makes no sense to create a celebrity death-match between Jesus and religion. Although the combat can be more dramatic, it is often created by people who fail to see the real problem. We just need more Jesus in both.

And here we are back to our original conundrum, the religious people did what they did "for show." So, what is my alternative? Let's be children.

Kids love life.  Unless they have been hurt, beat down, or just squashed in some awful way, the default action of a child is to take life and live it.  What if we lived this way in our experiences with Jesus?

Alright, there might be one major objection to my fairly simple understanding of how we should live from Luke 20:47.  Someone might say, well kids put on shows too.  And this person would be right.  But when kids put on a show, it is completely different than the ways these religious people were just showing off.

Luke 21:3-4 tells how a widow put in "all she had to live on" (HCSB). This is one part of the greater context of the "just a show" comment. This context shows absolute trust in a loving Father. Overall, I think if you were to read chapters 19-21, and eventually all of Luke's Gospel, and the other Gospels too- you might see a pattern emerge.  The pretense or "just a show" part of false religion is done to keep other people and God at a distance. It is all about personal power and privilege. False religion doesn't need Daddy, except to show how much power or privilege you individually have.

When I was younger, my sister and I would dance to music. We weren't good at all. We didn't know how to dance, but we would dance. And we did it for show.  We loved to show our parents our dances. I remember distinctly one in which we put together a show around The Lion King soundtrack.

As an adult, I know my dancing was terrible from a certain point of view, the point of view of power and prestige. From my parents' point of view, it was an amazing show.

So, go ahead and show off in your faith. Just remember, it's a child's dance.



Monday, October 21, 2013

A Saving Grace

The other night I was literally the only paying person at a show.  It was a really, really good show.  The band was playing for me, the bar tend, the opening band and the sound man.  There are a number of things I could say about this, but it got me thinking about one thing- grace.


Much can be said about the difference between grace and mercy.  It's already been done though.  Suffice it to say, grace is favor given without a necessary reason. 

These guys could have played a very short set. They would have been well within their rights to do so. They didn't. I don't know if they were just practicing and hoping some more people would come up, check them out and stay, or what... In any case, they played a decent set, had some fun with it, and sounded great.  I don't know if meant anything to anyone else in the room or not, but it meant a lot to me.  

Grace arrives in unexpected ways daily for me.  Sometimes those ways are small. Sometimes they are massive.  This one was- amorphous? Hard to measure for sure. 

The crazy thing about grace is that I need it. Maybe some people don't need it. 

I don't think I have met those people though.  Since I need it, I try to extend grace to others. It's hard for me to do so.  Some people I have met aren't willing to extend grace unless someone extends it to them first.  It is a hard line approach to life, friends, and how to interact with people socially.  

It is definitely easier to act this way when I am having a difficult day.

However, when I have the time and luxury to reflect, as when I was listening to this set the other night, I realize I am constantly the recipient of grace. Ephesians 2:5 says, "You are saved by grace" (HCSB).  Most Christians know, or have at least heard, Ephesians 2:8-9, "For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast." It wasn't until reading through Ephesians again this morning that I really noticed the simple phrase from verse 5.  

I think the reason most Christians focus on verses 8 and 9 is that they are trying to come to some understanding of the theological underpinnings of faith.  I think they might be overthinking it.  I do occasionally, and when I do I miss the simplicity of grace.  

I have been saved by grace and I needed it.   I am being saved by grace and I need it.  If I can't extend that grace to others in big and small ways I miss an opportunity to experience grace.  I miss out on what it means to live.  

The question becomes, "How can I extend grace today?" 

You are saved by grace. What are you going to do with it? 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Back at It

If you can't tell (whoever reads this?), I took quite a break from blogging.  I was thinking through a lot of things for quite a long time. 

I'm still thinking through those things. I'm still not settled in any sense of the word.  However, I am ready to get back at it.  I am ready to try writing again.  

Part of what rang through my head for a long time was a lone lyric and melody line from a Deathcab for Cutie song.  The song was "The Sound of Settling." I am only vaguely aware of what the song is actually about.  The reason this song kept coming back to me is that I felt like a failure; the song reminded me of my perceived failings.  I still feel like a failure.  There are days when I just don't want to move. 

Today happens to be one of those days.  I got up anyway.  I get up each day anyway.   In the past, there would be days when my body got up, but my soul didn't. It was down for the count.  

And that's where I return to that song.  The lyric goes, "this is the sound of settling, 'bum, bum'." It's a nice, cute, little catchy thing which absolutely fills up the void in my head sometimes.   This earworm of a song represents so much to me about the allure of failure.  Failure feels good to me sometimes.  Yeah, it does.  Sometimes I enjoy feeling like a failure because it's somewhere I have been before. It is easy.  



I'm not talking about anyone else here, just me.

Failure is easy because it is comfortable. It doesn't stretch me to become more.  It definitely does not motivate me.  It just makes me want to sleep. That song just makes me want to sing along- to go to sleep- and forget what I really want. It is like living towards death. I can understand why some of the poets talk about death like it is a calm, steady friend always inviting us forward.  Death, in this sense, is easier than life. 

So, what is the difference between the different types of days? Those days when my soul was still sleeping and wasn't? Hope. Yeah, really, it is hope.

I'm still depressed much of the time. I still feel worthless a lot. I still want more friends.  I still want to be successful. I still want to know my place in the crazy, messed up world.

More importantly than all of those things, I know I have hope.  The experience of hope in the midst of those things can't be explained well, at least not by me.  But I am confident that I have it. Maybe someday this hope will completely lead me out of death and into life.  I know it will happen, I'm just not sure if it will be in this body. 

I have hope and I know what I want. I want to live.  John 1:4 says, "In him was life, and life was the light of men."  



Monday, March 25, 2013

Doubt

It's that time of year again. We will all get our fill of interpretations of Jesus over the next few weeks. It's inevitable- every Easter we hear some new or re-imagined life of Christ which attempts to show how he was different than our preconceived ideas of him. Mostly, these special articles, tv programs, and lectures serve to show how orthodox Christians are wrong in some way and need to convert to the newer paradigm.

I'm kind of tired of these. Everyone has an agenda anymore it seems. I used to care a lot more about all of these ideas. Many of the best writers have compelling stories to tell. It's just that the coherence seems to come apart.

I just don't care that much anymore. It's not as if I don't have doubts. I do. I doubt a lot of things, but when I come back to Jesus, I keep discovering a compelling and believable story.

Doubt has been healthy to my faith. Learning and exploring different ideas is challenging and interesting. It's just that the skeptical doubt is not as interesting as Jesus.

James tells Christians to ask in faith without doubting (James 1:6). Many have taken this verse (and others similar to it), and assumed it referred to all doubting. In particular, when they apply it to faith some people believe we should not doubt our faith and just accept it unconditionally without revision.

The problem to this approach to faith and doubt is that it misses the core of rational belief in Christianity. We must have a noetic (intellectual belief) system which incorporates doubt. Doubt allows us to question our preconceived ideas and embedded culture. By doing so, we can come to a better understanding of truth which is universally applicable in nature. As Christians, we must believe truth is a person (e.g. John 1:1).

How do I square this with what James says? Easy, James is addressing Christians who are going through a time of hardship and suffering. These Christians need wisdom. Wisdom, I would argue, is the personification of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. This is what we are to ask for without doubting. So, when James tells us to ask for wisdom without doubting he is telling us to approach God with full-abandonment.

The lack of doubt he refers to manifests itself as a life which wholeheartedly seeks God. This is not what I mean, or many other people mean when they say "doubt." We mean something like- questions we have concerning the nature, character, or reliability of God, Jesus, or the scriptures.

James urges us to seek God first. Don't hedge your bets when you need help, seek God and what He has given you. This is a radically different topic than the intellectual exercise which considers things like historical truth or reliability.

For example, when we approach the Gospels with an attempt to learn because we are unsure what we believe, we may actually do so in a way that is consistent with what James advocates for Christian living. However, the locus of this intellectual doubt is not holding to some impossible idea of impartiality or empirical non-subjectivity. Instead, it is an abandonment to the search for truth while realizing that truth must be a person.

The doubt of a person of faith seeks understanding. It is the prayer of the father in Mark 9:24, "I believe, help my unbelief!" Only in Jesus do we find fulfillment and resolution to our doubt.

As I finish a season of preaching/teaching about the person of Jesus (I just spent 12 weeks on the subject with my students), I return to Jesus full of doubt and full of faith. My doubt has always sought Christ, The Lord, the Son of the Living God.

It is my prayer for my brothers and sisters in Christ that they will have some doubt as they think about Jesus this Easter.

I cannot help but have doubt as I approach the cross on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Have I forsaken my Lord? Do I continue to forsake Him? Is my prayer really any different than the thief who wanted to be with Jesus in paradise?

My doubt never ends, leads, or finds it source in my own questions. My doubt comes from being in constant contact with Christ. This is the second part of my prayer; may our doubt come from knowing Christ and His death and resurrection. This is the intellectual doubt which says, "How can this be?" This is the doubt which produces genuine faith. This is the doubt which affirms His resurrection and looks into the tomb.

My doubt is found in the uncertainty of the present moment.

My doubt is not guided by inaction.

My doubt is not held in suspension.

My doubt is not based upon the wisdom of this world.

My doubt finds itself next to The Lord and says, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom!" (Luke 23:42).

It is a cry of desperation and hope. It holds nothing back. Even in my darkest hours, I say "I believe, help my unbelief!" This should be a humble and biblical prayer.

in Christ,
Christopher

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Danger of Literalism

I saw this yesterday and thought I would mention something about it today.

A man in Tennessee quit his job because he received a W-2 with the number 666 on it.

Setting aside the various textual problems with the number itself, there a few things I wish Christians would keep in mind when reading and applying the Bible.

First, the book of Revelation is Apocalyptic literature.  It doesn't take a lot of studying to figure out almost everything in the book is symbolic or figurative of some other thing.  When and if there is a literal number of the beast, it probably won't actually be 666 -enough said on the particulars of this case.

Second, we absolutely must be aware of different genres in the Bible. This goes for every single book. We can't read a letter the same way we read a psalm or history or love songs or you get the point...

Third, we must leave behind as many of our presuppositions as possible when we come to the biblical text and then apply it to our life.  If God's word is God's word, then it has the power to speak to our lives across every cultural and historical barrier, but we must also allow the text to speak.  Applied to this situation- don't assume that just because something has the number 666 on it that it means the thing is somehow connected to the devil, beast, etc.

Fourth, I really don't think Jesus was a strict literalist in relation to the Bible.  Do I think he obeyed every part of it?- Yes.  Do I think he honored every part of it?- Yes.  Did he take every part literally? No.

This last part is an important point because it differs from the idea of Jesus not being a legalist. Most Christians would easily admit Jesus wasn't a legalist. When they come to the idea of literalism, I know many Christians who practically and actively maintain the literalism of Jesus.

For example, when they look at Jesus applying words from the Pentateuch, they will often want Jesus to be applying them in a literal, straightforward, non-metaphorical way.  This happens until they get to the parts of about the Sabbath (e.g. Mark 2:27). Then all bets are off, at least for a little while.  It doesn't take long for them to return to a strict literalist (or do I mean legalist?) Jesus.

This story about Jesus is pretty dumb- one more reason I don't believe Jesus was a literalist.

Jesus understood things like genre and context.  As Christians, we should too.  If we don't, we will end up misapplying scripture like the man in Tennessee.  When we do that, we miss what God really wants us to be focusing on in his word.

Get in the word. Know the word. Apply the word.   But please don't insist on being a strict literalist.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Obedience

It amazes me how many times I have to explain this concept to my four year old son. The distinction between obedience and disobedience blurs all too quickly for him. Even when there are clear consequences and privileges for disobedience and obedience, he often chooses the disobedient path.

I must admit I blur the lines in my own life. I can't claim to be a four year old though. Sometimes it feels as if I am just a young boy, but that is usually due to my own foolishness. As James would say, "I know the good I should do, and yet I fail to do it." (James 4:17, my own paraphrase).

Why is obedience so hard? Especially when we know the consequences will not and cannot be good for us?

It's a heart issue. We want to be masters of our world. We want to have control. It feels so much more satisfying, or at least we think so, to have control over our own little slice of the universe. Disobedience allows us to assert this dominance over our slice. After all, I have a right to be disobedient if I want.

Rights are invoked by Christians all the time. I have a right to eat what I want. I have a right to watch what I want. I have a right to be friends with the people I want. I have a right to use my money the way I want. I'm sure we could make a long list of all the rights we have.

What's the problem with this type of assertion?

Again, it's a heart issue. Whenever I assert my rights over the rights of another person, I am showing the character of my heart. Even when I am just asserting a right and it is not immediately clear how another person is involved, I am still seeking something for myself.

The heart which seeks to be served is a disobedient heart. But we all like to be served right? Yep, we do. There is nothing wrong with enjoying and appreciating it when someone serves us.
The problem arises when our rights or our wish to be served motivates us. This is what I am talking about when I talk about the heart; the heart is our will which motivates us, desires within us, and moves our will.

One thing I believe Nietzsche got right about slave morality is this - it emasculates everyone when imposed upon others. Slave morality, in essence, is the idea that virtues such as charity, kindness, and humility are a reaction to a master morality of strength and will, originally determined by its consequences. Nietzsche abhorred the biblical and Christian concepts of morality for several reasons, but most importantly he thought it necessary to revalue morality in terms of the will to power.

There are two major distinctions Nietzsche failed to realize about Christian morality, or perhaps he understood and did not believe. In any case, Christians do not believe strength and will are evil in themselves. Second, Christians cannot defend an imposition of morality as the way by which true equality is gained.

On the first point, we believe strength, or fortitude in Aquinas' terms, is a virtue. We just believe strength is shown in different ways, e.g. restraint or the defense of the defenseless. This is why Christians should not always be silent in the face of evil. Christians must be advocates for others.

Christians cannot defend an imposition of morality as the means of true equality because we believe in the uniqueness of salvation through Christ. What does salvation have to do with equality? Everything! Salvation must be universally accessible and universally able to be rejected. If morality is the highest standard of equality, or at least the means by which equality is granted, then salvation no longer rules our thoughts and actions as Christians. Even more, true morality is result of a changed heart, formed by Christ. So, in order for morality to be real it must be first formed in the forge of salvation.

Salvation* must be the guide by which we see all men and women before God. The government may attempt to legislate morality, but Christians must understand it is a relationship to God in terms of Christ that determines our standing, both temporal and eternal.

It is at this point we remember the service of Christ.

Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. (Mark 10:45; John 3:16-17). He showed us the essence of an obedient heart. He showed us how to follow God fully. He did not come to assert his rights, but instead to serve others.

As I celebrate Christmas this year, I want to seek to serve others. I want to do this in strength, but also in humility.

If I am going to serve others, I must be obedient to God rather than my rights.

I am seeking to serve in obedience this Christmas.

Happy Christmas!
-christopher


Luke 2:8-20 (HCSB)
The Shepherds and the Angels
8 In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. 9 Then an angel of the Lord h stood before them, and the glory of The Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: 11 Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David. 12 This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.”
13 Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
14 Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and peace on earth t to people He favors!
15 When the angels had left them and returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
16 They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the feeding trough. 17 After seeing them, they reported the message they were told about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, just as they had been told.



*As a side note, salvation extends beyond the mere conception of getting into heaven. Salvation must be thought of in terms of the full redemptive work of Christ.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grateful

Being content is a full time enterprise. Seriously, if I don't work at being content, then I start to get distracted by temptations on every side. A few (mostly) silly examples:
Toys - Is there a new Star Wars Lego set out? Cool, let's go look at it at Soren (and try to convince mommy we should buy it)!
Games - That new board game takes 5 hours to play and some of the instructions are in Latin? I can't wait to buy it and play it one time before putting in the closet forever!
Activities - I have been doing this same activity for 2 months now? I really need to start something new! How about Zoomba!
Food - I've eaten beans twice this month? I need to eat the newest food craze now!

This week I talked to my students about being grateful. Thanksgiving provokes us to think about thankfulness, contentedness, and gratefulness.

As I studied for the lesson I encountered a familiar problem. The text showed me I needed to make a change in my own life.

Preparing to teach the Bible should involve several important steps. The text should be read a few times. Prayer finds it ways throughout the experience. Historical and cultural research, cross-referncing, and language study all take up time in the process. Eventually, when the teacher begins to think directly about application, the text must have been fermenting in the soul for many hours. Many times this causes the honest teacher to revaluate their own relationship to the text.

This is where it caused a problem for me. I don't always live out the application and meaning of the verse we were studying.

Colossians 3:17 occupied our discussion this week.

It says, "And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. (HCSB)"

This is not a flippant "Thank You!" We are expected to live out our thanks. The work of Jesus should be at the forefront of every action, internal and external in our lives. It should be transformative.

To be more precise, the thanksgiving we believers express to God through our lives because of Jesus Christ must clearly show the transformative nature of the Gospel.

It must express this...must! If it does not express the transformative nature of the Gospel we are being led away into glorification of self. In a nutshell, this is what the book of Colossians is about. When we are filled with the work and person of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, our lives contain the sufficiency of Christ.

Sufficiency here does not just mean "enough." This word fails to express the fullness of sufficiency in Christ. Sufficiency in Christ means we have everything we need.

And this is how it all connects- If I truly have everything I need in Christ, then I will be content. To express discontent is to express dissatisfaction with the sufficiency of Christ. It is to be an ungrateful, spoiled, rotten, and petulant child. Nobody likes being around that kid, not even that kid. I do not want to be him.

But I am. Frequently.

Only a person who is content can consistently experience the grateful life. A grateful life, a thankful life expresses it in visible ways. We must consistently act our gratitude.

This week I want to express my gratitude to someone in my life who I am thankful toward. I am going to tell them. I am also going to do something for this person.

I also want to express my gratitude to God. I want to do this in an active way. Prayer and Bible study are good, but our gratitude to God should never end there.

The best part of Thanksgiving is that it is extremely hard to compromise a real "Thank You." We all know how to spot the faker, the person who says "Thank You" in a hypocritical or flippant way. So, instead let's be thankful.

Express your thanks today. Be active. Be visible in your consequences and secret in your identity. That's my plan for now.

Happy Thanksgiving.
-Christopher