Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reflections on the Connecticut School Shooting

This past week our nation was shocked by the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  As pictures of the victims and stories of the shooting make their way through the news cycle, I'm hit again and again by waves of shock and grief and outrage and sadness.  It's almost too much to take in.  In particular, this shooting is outrageous because the majority of the victims were 6-7 year-old's.  I've been thinking about this shooting a lot, partly because it's difficult not to, and partly because I taught at church this past Sunday and felt compelled to address the shooting.  Below are some of my reflections as I've thought, prayed, and grieved over this tragedy.

  • This tragedy makes me want to lock my kids up, home school them through college, and completely shield them from the ugliness of this dark world.  But the miracle of Christmas is that God didn't do that to His Son.  God sent His Son to be born in this dark and desperate world, knowing all the while that a horrific death awaited Him--all because He loved us!  "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32).
  • God designed us to be shocked, disgusted, and horrorstruck at the idea of harm coming to innocent children for a reason.  The reason is so that we could understand a bit of the depth of sacrifice and love that God demonstrated when He sent His one and only innocent Son into this world to die for our sins.  "This is how God showed his love among us:  He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love:  not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:9-10).  That disgust and horror you feel towards evil being done to innocent children is a glimpse of the horror and disgust that the Father endured as His own innocent Son was brutally tortured and killed because of my sins. 
  • There's a lot of blame being passed around.  From mental health to gun control to kicking God out of public schools, this shooting is being politicized from all sides.  People are looking for an issue to get behind so that they can prevent further instances of this kind of evil.  But this overlooks the biblical notion that we live in fallen, depraved, and wicked world.  Sin is real, and it will make it's presence known.  Not long after Jesus' birth, a wicked man named Herod had all the male babies in the vicinity of Bethlehem, 2-years-old and under, murdered in an attempt to kill Jesus (Matthew 2:16-18).  Evil is not new.  But sin is inconvenient to blame, because there's only one answer to evil.
  • The answer to evil lies in the gospel.  Only as people come to know the grace, truth, and love of Jesus Christ, and are transformed by it, will our nation become better.  I think of the famous quote by Alexis de Tocqueville (author of Democracy in America):  "I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers—and it was not there.  I sought in the fertile fields and boundless forest—in her rich mines and vast world commerce—and it was not there.  I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—it was not there.  Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.  America is great because America is good—and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great."
  • A lot of people will ask why God let this happen.  That is a question we will probably never have the answer to this side of eternity.  We can give reasons why God allows evil in general: sometimes because it allows for greater goods like the spread of the knowledge of Himself, the salvation of lost people, or the existence of human freedom.  But although we can give these possible reasons why God allows evil in general, God does not tell us why he allows specific instances of evil to occur.  Instead, He asks us to trust that He knows best.  We do know that God's purposes are not restricted to this life, but spill over beyond the grave into eternal life.  God's knowledge is immeasurably better than our small and limited outlook.  We also know that the Bible seems to indicate that when a child dies before they have the capacity to knowingly reject Christ, God in His mercy saves them and they enter God's Presence immediately upon the death of their physical bodies.  And this is a far better situation than they were in before (see 2 Samuel 12:21-23; Matthew 19:14; Philippians 1:23).
  • One day, Jesus will return and make all the wrongs right.  He'll completely and permanently eradicate sin and create perfect peace forever.  "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4).  Events like this stir us to long for that day like we ought to.  Come Lord Jesus, come!

Friday, December 7, 2012

"Spiritual, But Not Religious"

In his recent book, Bad Religion:  How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat exposes the spiritual roots of America's political, economic, and moral decline.  He argues that the problem is not too much religion (as the atheists would argue), nor is it intolerant secularism (as many Christians believe).  Instead, the problem is bad religion:  the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.

The problem lies in the fashionably "spiritual, but not religious" sentiment espoused by many teachers including Deepak Chopra, James Redfield, Eckhart Tolle, Paulo Coelho, Neale Donald Walsch, Oprah Winfrey, and Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love), and (I might add) Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi).  Douthat examines the roots of this view and finds that their "creed" shares the following four beliefs:
  1. All organized religions offer only partial glimpses of God (or Light or Being).  Thus, we must seek to experience God through feeling rather than reason, experience rather than dogma, a direct encounter rather than a hand-me-down revelation.  As Neil Donald Walsch writes in his book, Conversations with God, "Listen to your feelings.  Listen to your Highest Thought .... Whenever any of these differ from what you've been told by your teachers, or read in your books, forget the words."
  2. God is everywhere and within everything--especially within you.  You can encounter God by getting in touch with the divinity that resides inside your very self and soul.  At the climax of his book The Alchemist, Paul Coelho writes:  "The boy reached through the Soul of the World, and saw that it was a part of the Soul of God.  And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul."
  3. Sin and evil are largely illusions that will ultimately be reconciled rather than defeated.  There is no hell save the one we make for ourselves on Earth, no final separation from the Being that all our beings rest within.  Elizabeth Gilbert assures her readers, "There is no such thing in this universe as hell, except maybe in our own terrified minds."
  4. Perfect happiness is available right now.  Heaven is on earth.  Eternity can be entered at any moment, by any person who understands how to let go, let God, and let themselves be washed away in love.  James Redfield writes, "At some point everyone will vibrate highly enough so that we can walk into heaven, in our same form."
These four beliefs compose the core of the bad religion that has been so fashionable as of late and, according to Douthat, is the core of America's spiritual woes.  I suspect that many well-meaning Christians might even be tempted to believe various forms of these beliefs.  I think of the popular Christian authors Rob Bell, Brian McLaren,William P. Young (author of The Shack), and Donald Miller (author of Blue Like Jazz:  Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality), each of which espouse one or more of these beliefs in a Christianized form.

My church has been teaching through the book of Colossians, and I've been impressed by the similarity of the cultural pressure faced by the church at Colossae and the American church.  For both the Colossian church and the American church, the problem was not an outright denial of religion, but a new form of religion that seemed spiritual and tolerant.  The problem was and is syncretism:  the blending of religious ideas and the denial of claims to exclusive truth.   The problem was and is an over-individualization of spirituality detached from the organizational church and orthodoxy.  In response to this, Paul encouraged the Colossian believers to be faithful, knowing that Christ is supreme.  He forcefully announces the supremacy of Christ stating,
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  (Colossians 1:15-20)
He warns the Colossian believers to not be taken "...captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8).  And he reminds them to hold fast to Christ, not self-made religion (Colossians 2:19, 23).  And he reminds them to hold fast to Christ in connection with Christ's body--the local church (Colossians 2:19).  We desperately need this reminder of Christ's supremacy and need to resolve to be faithful to Him no matter the cultural pressure.  "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Juvenilization of American Christianity

In his new book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, religious historian Thomas Bergler traces how over the past 75 years American Christianity has become juvenilized by the influence of youth ministries. Bergler shows how this juvenilization has breathed new vitality into the American church, but at the cost of widespread spiritual immaturity, consumerism, and self-centeredness, by popularizing a feel-good faith with neither intergenerational community nor theological literacy. He concludes the book by offering some constructive suggestions about how juvenilization can be tamed. This is an important study with some serious take-aways for doing ministry, especially youth ministry. Below are a few excerpts of his Christianity Today article which introduces his study:

Juvenilization tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith.
Today many Americans of all ages not only accept a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism, they often celebrate it as authentic spirituality. God, faith, and the church all exist to help me with my problems. Religious institutions are bad; only my personal relationship with Jesus matters. If we believe that a mature faith involves more than good feelings, vague beliefs, and living however we want, we must conclude that juvenilization has revitalized American Christianity at the cost of leaving many individuals mired in spiritual immaturity.
As the line between adolescence and adulthood continues to blur, eliminating youth ministries would only weaken religious formation of youth without doing much to counter spiritual immaturity among adults. And instead of naively thinking we can eliminate juvenilization, we should instead work to tame it by helping local congregations build an intergenerational way of life that fosters spiritual maturity.
Pastors and youth leaders can begin by teaching what the Bible says about spiritual maturity, with a special emphasis on those elements that are neglected by juvenilized Christians. Church leaders also need to ask hard questions about the music they sing, the curriculum materials they use, and the ways they structure activities.
We need to ditch the false belief that cultural forms are neutral. Every enculturation of Christianity highlights some elements of the faith and obscures others. We must be vigilant and creatively compensate for what gets lost in translation when we use the language of youth culture. For example, if we sing songs that highlight the emotional consolations of the faith, what can we do to help young people also embrace the sufferings that come with following Jesus?
I believe one key is to renew our commitment to the church as an intergenerational family, in which each person has a unique role in helping the others toward our shared goal of maturity in Christ (Titus 2:1-15; Eph. 5:21-6:4; Col. 3:18-4:1; 1 John 2:12-14). Adults need children and adolescents to draw out their committed love and provide concrete opportunities to care for others. Adolescents help adults reconnect with the passion of a life devoted to Christ, what he called the first love of the Christians at Ephesus (Rev. 2:4). Young people need adults in their lives who are modeling a vibrant spiritual maturity. One reason no one wants to grow up in America is that many adults don't make their life stage look very attractive.
Teenagers can legitimately follow Christ in adolescent ways, including participating in age-appropriate youth ministries. But those ministries must also help youth catch a vision for growing up spiritually. Churches full of people who are building each other up toward spiritual maturity are not only the best antidote to the juvenilization of American Christianity, but also a powerful countercultural witness in a juvenilized society.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Christians Should be Happy

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) preached his first sermon at the age of 18. His thesis was that "Christians should be happy" and he explained why in three points:

  • #1: Our bad things will turn out for good.
  • #2: Our good things can never be taken away from us.
  • #3: The best things are yet to come.

A simple sermon, and a profound reminder.

(HT:  Erick Cobb)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Setting the Captives Free: Churches Raiding Slave Ships

There are a lot of hot-button social justice issues that come and go in Christian culture.  Whether it be starving children in Ethiopia, orphans in China, medical relief in Haiti, or saving unborn babies, interest in these issues seems--at least to me--to come in waves.  I can think of a few reasons these issues come and go.  (1) Maybe they come and go because they are simply fads.  What seems to be a cool unique cause eventually becomes tiresome and boring until a new cool unique cause comes along.  This is a pretty cynical way of looking at these issues. (2) Perhaps they come and go because they are areas where God wants the Church to focus its attention and join Him in what he is doing.  Maybe God is the one stirs the Church to be about certain issues at certain strategic times in history so that his love and justice can reach the maximum amount of people possible.  If so, then the Church is simply reflecting God's focus and heart for the world about these issues.  (3) Perhaps they come and go because the Church sometimes neglects certain areas of ministry and justice, and needs it's attention refocused and it's heart rekindled so that the heart of the Church is realigned with the place where God's heart and passion have been all  along.  I suspect that reasons (2) and (3) are somewhere close to the truth of the matter.  The reality is that God deeply loves people, and because he loves people, he is doing something in this world to bring about justice and knowledge of Himself.

One current hot-button social justice issue is human trafficking.  I recently heard about Augustine’s Letter to Alypius (# 10, ca. 428 AD) where he refers to an increase in slave trafficking by abduction in North Africa and how groups of Christians raided slave ships to set the prisoners free. Listen to this:
Even the examples of this outrage that I have personally encountered are too many for me to list, if I wished to do so. Let me give you just one example, and you can estimate from it the total extent of their activity throughout Africa and along its coasts. About four months before I wrote this letter, a crowd of people collected from different regions, but particularly from Numidia, were brought here by Galatian merchants to be transported from the shores of Hippo (It is only, or at least mainly, the Galatians who are so eager to engage in this form of commerce). However, a faithful Christian was at hand, who was aware of our practice of performing acts of mercy in such cases; and he brought the news to the church. Immediately, about 120 people were set free by us (though I was absent at the time), some from the ship which they had to board, others from a place where they had been hidden before being put on board. We discovered that barely five or six of these had been sold by their parents. On hearing about the misfortunes that had led the rest of them to the Galatians, via their abductors and kidnappers, hardly one of us could restrain their tears.  (HT:  Michael Bird)
This is a good reminder that Christians are called to action.  If we want our lives to truly demonstrate our beliefs, then we should actively engage in acts of justice and mercy.  "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:16-18 ESV).  So what did you do after church last Sunday?  Go out to a restaurant for lunch, went home for a nap, did some light shopping, or mounted a rescue mission for slaves?  What would it mean for your church or your small group or your friends to get together and "raid a slave ship?"  What is the "slave ship" in your life?  Who is in need of justice that you are capable of supplying?  The Church must always be about social justice because the Church must be about God, and God is about justice.  God is about the oppressed, the alone, and the destitute.  He cares for children, the weak, and the helpless--and so must we.  "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world"  (James 1:27 ESV).  This gets dangerous when the message of the gospel is divorced from or blurred by the focus on the social justice issues, but that should not deter us from displaying and incarnating God's heart towards the world.  Instead, it should simply make us all the more vigilant to keep the gospel central to all that we do and to not separate the good news from good works.

The letter above goes to show that the efforts of Christians to set the slaves free did not begin with William Wilberforce but has ancient origins.  Freedom for the captives is not just a fad, but a historical mantra for the church of God.  This makes me all the more thankful for the work on the International Justice Mission who advocate for those caught in human trafficking.  See also the following books:

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Advocate

One of my favorite hymns is "Before the Throne of God Above."  The author, Charitie Lees Smith, was born in 1841 in the vicinity of Dublin, Ireland. She was the daughter of a minister of the Church of Ireland. Not much is known about her life, but it appears that she was widowed twice: although she married Arthur Bancroft in 1869, she died under the name Charitie de Cheney in California in 1923. Charitie published her poetry in leaflet form as early as 1860, and a number of her collected works were eventually published as Within the Veil in 1867. “Before the Throne” was written in 1863 under the title “The Advocate.”  I really appreciate how this hymn gives a clear picture of the confidence believers have before God--not due to themselves, but due to their strong Advocate--Christ Jesus.
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea. (Heb 4:15-16)
A great High Priest whose Name is Love (Heb 4:14)
Who ever lives and pleads for me. (Heb 7:25)
My name is graven on His hands, (Isa 49:16)
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart. (Rom 8:34)
When Satan tempts me to despair (Luke 22:31-32)
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there (Acts 7:55-56)
Who made an end of all my sin. (Col 2:13-14)
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me. (Rom 3:24-26)
Behold Him there the risen Lamb, (Rev 5:6)
My perfect spotless righteousness, (1 Cor 1:30; 1 Peter 1:18-19)
The great unchangeable I AM, (Heb 13:8; John 8:58)
The King of glory and of grace,
One in Himself I cannot die.
My soul is purchased by His blood, (Acts 20:28)
My life is hid with Christ on high, (Col 3:3)
With Christ my Savior and my God! (Tit 2:13) 
“Before the Throne of God Above” draws heavily from Scripture for its pictures and language. It is a hymn which finds its theme in the perfect security which believers find in Christ, Who intercedes for them “before the throne of God above.” The following Scriptures find echoes in the song, whether Charitie is drawing conceptually from them or merely using their language.
1 John 2:1:  "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous."  ("The Advocate," title).
Hebrews 4:14-16: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (“a great High Priest”, st. 1, and general conceptual background)
Hebrews 7:25: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (“Who ever lives and pleads for me,” st. 1)
1 John 4:8-9:  "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him." ("whose Name is Love, st. 1")
Isaiah 49:16a: “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;” (“My name is written on His hands,” st. 1)
Romans 8:34: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (“I know that while in Heaven He stands, no tongue can bid me thence depart,” st. 1)
In verse 2, Charitie may have had the following texts in mind:
Luke 22:31-32a: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” (“When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within,” st. 2)
Acts 7:55-56: “But [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’” (“Upward I look and see Him there,” st. 2)
Colossians 2:13-14: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (“Who made an end to all my sin,” st. 2)
Romans 3:24-26: “. . . and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (“God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me,” v. 2)
Likewise, verse 3:
Revelation 5:6: “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” (“Behold Him there, the risen Lamb,” st. 2)
1 Corinthians 1:30: “[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (“My perfect spotless righteousness,” st. 2)
1 Peter 1:18-19: “. . . knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (“spotless,” st. 2)
Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (“unchangeable,” st. 2)
John 8:58: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’” (“I AM,” st. 2)
Acts 20:28: “. . . the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (“my soul is purchased by His blood,” st. 2)
Colossians 3:3: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (“My life is hid with Christ on high,” st. 3)
Titus 2:13: “. . . waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,” (“Christ my Savior and my God,” st. 3)