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Monday, March 26, 2012

The In Crowd

(This post was written for my youth ministry blog and also appears there.)

It’s such a harsh word isn’t it?  And yet we all experience it at some point in our lives.  In movies and television shows, it has often been portrayed as something overcome with a “feel good” ending. Finally, the ugly kid triumphs over the beauty queen and is accepted by his peers. Or maybe the shy girl, who has never been asked out because people make fun of her, winds up getting treated like a princess by the most sought after guy. 

The actual experience of rejection is rarely like the movies. It’s the reason even a game of dodgeball can be depressing.  After all, who wants to be last one picked for a team? It definitely stinks of rejection. It is what we fear and what drives us towards The In Crowd. The In Crowd usually stands for the cool people, those who are popular and favored by their peers.

At the same time, rejection may alienate us from other people. I believe one of the worst places for rejection to occur is within the church.  Many people walk away from the church when they experience rejection from those professing to be followers of Jesus. And yet it continues to happen. Individuals, young and old, end up feeling as if they have been abandoned and pushed to the side. 

This is not a new phenomenon.  The church has struggled with this problem since its early years.  One leading cause of rejection is insidious to the core, and it is called favoritism.

James 2:1 says, “My friends, as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, you must never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance. (GNT)”

Favoritism in this context is about treating people differently based upon who appears more likely to return the favor or preferential treatment.  When James wrote his letter, some Christians were engaged in this behavior and thought it was a good thing.  As he describes the situation, to show favor in this way involves a disdain for someone who looks poor (James 2:2-3).  Rejection here involves two actions- 1. verbally shaming the poor person and  2. providing them with fewer opportunities in the church community.

James believes anyone who acts disdainfully towards the poor and shows favor on the rich is idolatrous.  In other words, when you judge someone and reject them because of how they look, you are pretending to be God.  We replace the love and compassion of our creator with selfish behavior and attitude. This is the reason God has no patience for our favoritism.   

Although James was concerned with the treatment of the rich and poor in the Christian community- the principle extends to all categories we tend to put people into.  Christians are not to judge other people by their appearance.  If we judge people and treat some people better, it necessarily means we are going to treat other people worse. By doing so, we are pretending to be God and rejecting them. 

You may wonder if I am saying we should not have close or best friends.  This is not what I am saying at all. I am saying our words and actions towards all people must be equally charitable.   Jesus commanded us to love one another (John 15:12).  We are supposed to do this in a self-sacrificial way.  This is what it means to live in Christian community and not show favoritism.  

For Christians, The In Crowd needs to be redefined. In a healthy, Christ-centered Christian community, The In Crowd is everyone, there is no need for different cliques or groups.  When we act as Jesus commanded us, rejection is left behind with the arrival of acceptance. 

I remember being rejected at several points in my life.  One of those times was my freshman year of college. I’d been dating a girl for a while and she broke up with me over spring break. It was while I was out of town.  Definitely felt rejection setting in then.  Feelings like desperation, hostility, and loneliness were overwhelming at the time.  I had to seek out help and affirmation in order to work through that experience.  I found the help and affirmation I needed by turning to other Christians. They prayed with me, shared scripture with me, and I reaffirmed my commitment to Christ. Thankfully, they extended grace and love to me instead of judgment or seeking their own desires.  I was welcomed as part of The In Crowd.

God accepts us this way too- “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8, NIV)” The favor God shares with us is his love, and it is not dependent upon us being cool, pleasing him, or doing something for him.  God loves us because He is love (1 John 4:16).

What would it be like if Refuge! (our youth ministry) redefined The In Crowd in Christ’s terms?   Rejection would be gone.  It wouldn’t be about being cool. It would be about being authentic people. It wouldn’t be about trying to please other people. It would be about living through the power of the Holy Spirit. It wouldn’t be about what any individual could get out of it. It would be about who we are as Christ’s church.  The In Crowd would be about loving one another.

The second half of 1 John 4:16 says this, “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him (NIV).”


Friday, March 23, 2012

Review of "Taking Jesus at His Word" by Addison Hodges Hart

It is refreshing to read a meditative work born out of life experiences. Although written for Christians and non-Christians alike, Addison Hodges Hart's Taking Jesus at His Word  will appeal most to people who already believe in the message of Jesus.  Jesus is presented as a teacher, but also as Lord.  Every chapter reads easily.  This is not to say that Hart has softened the message of Jesus.  Rather, his writing style invites readers to sit and ponder the words of the Messiah.

And yet we have much more than introspection.  There is also a call to action.  Some readers may be off-put by the pragmatic leanings of Hart.  From my perspective, this is one thing I agree wholeheartedly with the author about.  Orthopraxy in its proper context is always appropriate. 

On the other hand, I do have my methodological concerns with the book.  Throughout, there is an implied approach to hermeneutics and exegesis with which I do not agree.   My concern is not that Hart, or any other author, agrees with my own approach to these subjects.  Instead, I am concerned when a meditative work, focused on the words of Jesus, unnecessarily inserts these concerns into the text.  For example, Hart dismisses the possibility of the historical background of Jonah. The issue of Jonah's historicity is a completely unnecessary addition to this book.  Jesus may or may not be using an implied typology in Matthew 12:40- "For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights." There are a number of opinions on the relationship between Jesus and the historicity of the book of Jonah. Glossing over the subtle differences in opinion from Christian traditions does an injustice to Hart's project.  He has engaged in partiality and division. Although this may have been unavoidable in some instances, there are several cases in which he makes this methodological mistake.  Probably the biggest one comes in the first appendix. Instead of allowing the Gospels (and Jesus) to speak in their own voices, he adds his belief that all the Gospels were written after 71 AD.  In another work, this would not necessarily be a problem.  In this work, it is distracting and confusing given the fact that footnotes and other scholary apparatus are (correctly) not included. This book would have been even better with the divisive elements left out of it. 

Given these methodological considerations, I would still give a  recommendation of Taking Jesus at His Word.  In particular, Christian leaders may find this book refreshing and inspiring in its attempt to take seriously the words of Jesus. Hart leaves us no doubt that Jesus intended his followers to actually follow, not just give him lip service.  Discerning leaders may want to make use of the study questions in the back and use this as a starting place for Christian practice.  

Thank you to the publisher for my early review copy.