Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Standing for Christmas

I got an mass email today stating that it was my responsibility as a follower of Jesus to 'take a stand' against all this 'Happy Holidays' sentiment that's going around rather than the specific 'Merry Christmas' of old. Evidently, Jesus is very upset that we are ruining his holiday that was created to celebrate his birth. With the continued secularization of the Christmas season from its Christ-birth theme to a more religiously general (or irreligious) tone, I see a lot of people getting really upset. And I certainly understand why. This Christmas tradition has gone on for millenia and has also been a central part of the American culture since the country's founding. By changing the meaning and focus of this season, we are, without a doubt, losing a treasured piece of our nation's heritage. This then explains why people are so upset when they attend a 'Holiday Party' or a retailer puts on their annual 'Winter Season Sale', for example.

I feel the discontent over this has taken on a new level of intensity over the past few years as followers of Jesus have taken personal offense to these changes and come to the conclusion that Jesus is not happy about this de-christianization. Combine this with the perception that America is losing its general Judeo-Christian morality to a new breed of moral ambiguity and one can feel a sense of urgency to 'take America back for Jesus' (a statement I find to be a joke on a thousand levels). That is undoubtedly what spurred on the email I received that challenged my Christian manhood on how well I am taking a stand against this building tide.

My problem here is twofold, and they both run to some deeper issues within the group that call themselves (ourselves) followers of Jesus. First, is the idea of 'taking a stand for something' and how that relates to the kingdom Jesus is trying to build. Aside from sounding noble, the idea that Jesus wants us to focus our efforts on ideals, and not people themselves, seems to be the opposite of how he calls us to live. I I see so much of our efforts as a body concentrated on confronting things that are immoral, or anti-Christian, or anti-Biblical in our society. I see protests against immoral TV shows, homosexual groups, and the removal of Christian symbols (i.e. The 10 Commandments) from public places. I hear Christians speak in disgust of the current state of moral affairs in our country. I listen as older followers speak of a day when things were so much better and sane. And from these experiences I can only conclude that there is a large group of us that thinks that Jesus is mad about these things and wants us to change them. Its almost as if we are saying "Jesus has these standards of morality, and if we don't take a hard line against those standards, the world will go to hell in a hand basket. We would be letting our Lord and Savior down." Therefore, we spend so much time and treasure trying to force our morality upon people who don't share the same belief, that there come some unintended consequences.

When I see 'you' doing something that I see as wrong, and I believe that it is my God-given responsibility to snuff out these things, it creates a difficult dynamic. My goal then becomes to communicate your wrongs to you, with the intent of backing them up with biblical proof as to their evil. This acts accomplishes two things. (1) It shows that I am committed to Jesus by standing for his moral principles, and (2) it creates a contrast in your world that shows how bad you are and how much you are in need of a Jesus who can forgive your badness. Two birds with one stone! Evangelism wrapped in valor! Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of people do not react with a 'see the light' moment and immediately make the choice to jettison their filthy old life and follow Jesus. In fact, it is human nature to resist someone telling you that you're bad and they are good. So people get upset. They reject the message on account of the messenger and get defensive. In some cases, they justifiably fight harder to validate their actions so as to maintain some sort of validity. After all, who welcomes criticism from another who obviously has no purpose other than criticism for shaming purposes? When this happens, there is an escalation in the interaction and each side digs in. The christian sees this refusal to accept and bow to the truth as a direct and hostile action towards God. If they were compelled to stand for the truth before, they must certainly see the fight to the end! After all, they are defending the creator of the universe against the forces of darkness that threaten the kingdom he has built! The wrongdoer also digs in to defend their own personhood that is under attack. And from there, things get ugly as both sides claim to fight on a righteous platform. I have even had people refer to these times as being 'persecuted for their faith', which makes them feel even more aligned with Jesus.

The second issue I have with this attitude is where it's roots lie. To have this attitude there must be some underlying beliefs that fuel them. In order to feel that it is our responsibility to vanquish immorality, and to keep it from making inroads into our society, we must feel that this is what Jesus wants. And with the fervor by which his followers execute this operation, it would seem that Jesus wants this more than almost anything else! However, I just don't see that in his Gospels. I don't see Jesus fighting to make his society moral. I don't see him using his perfection to point out other's imperfections with the intent of using contrast and shame as a kingdom-building tool. In fact, I see a real hypocrisy in the church in that we claim that the world is going to hell fast, and that Jesus will eventually have enough of it and return to slay all evildoers. We claim that we want this to happen soon so Jesus can come and finally deal with sin, once and for all. This is how 'kingdom' was explained to me. But on the other hand we feel the need to fight this tide and to complain endlessly as to how its ruining our society and our lifestyle. That just doesn't make sense to me. Also, to claim that we are 'losing our christian heritage' is insinuating that our society was once a good and decent place that God had obviously set up as his version of what his kingdom looks like. I hear so many comments that we are losing something that we had, and that losing it is not something that Jesus wants. In fact, keeping it is worth fighting for above all else. Its almost as if we lose this utopia that Jesus provided, we are slapping him in the face. I find this attitude to be extremely ignorant and self-serving. To honestly think that our country, and our society, had achieved something heavenly and now that heaven is being lost shows a real lack of vision. If we are saying that the world in the 1950's had less sex and less atheism than today, that is certainly correct. If things seemed more peaceful and respectful and honorable back then, I can't disagree. But to think that there was less sin in general is manifestly absurd. We overlooked things like racism and bigotry back then. We never think about how our 'manly' fathers and grandfather were, in addition to being the hardworking providers that we laud them for being, were also cold and unloving and judgemental. And what of the last century that saw the creation of an economic system that separates the rich from the poor further and further each day? Is that not against Jesus' calls to feed and clothe the poor?

I think that we've gotten our messages crossed a bit. The dynamic of 'fighting' for a cause is something that we are very familiar with in our culture. Our history is peppered with stories of valor and conquest in the pursuit of removing evil from the world (many of these are stories of war). And I believe that we've so bought into the goodness of those feats that we feel very free to assume that preparing for battle over a principle is something to be encouraged. Ever heard the saying "If you don't stand for anything, you'll fall for anything"? That speaks to our bent towards showing righteousness through the destruction of its adversaries. But again, I just don't see this in the scriptures. Jesus lived in incredibly immoral times. He lived under an oppression that would make any dictator today look small time and feeble. The leader of their occupiers ordered all people to call him 'lord' and ordered death upon any who refused. There was not a single element of life in Jesus' time that was not affected by the 'evil' of the Roman oppression. And Jesus came, as the rescuer of the entire created world, and yet never called his followers to 'stand' against these elements. He never insinuated that their allegiance to him would be measured by how well they kept their culture sinless; by how well they fended off sin. If that would have been the case, the book of Acts would have taken place in Israel with all his followers crusading against the evils of the empire. But instead, Jesus talked of something new called 'the Kingdom of heaven' and went to great lengths to show how that kingdom went against almost every instinct in the hearts of the people of his day. He talked of crazy things like loving your enemies and letting them beat on you. He talked about giving away the things that you feel you deserve for the benefit of people that don't have any claim to deserving them. He talked of bringing peace into conflict and spoke of living a life that would be a display of the love that God has for each of his children. He said that living this life would be very difficult, and through that difficulty he would show himself to be God. It was about serving all, endurance and sacrifice. And to finish it off, he said that his way of life may even cost you your life.

We in the 'christian' world talk a lot about trusting God and what that means. For us in America, that typically means believing that God will bring us through hard times. Sickness. Financial difficulties. Child troubles. I am in the insurance sales field, and I have been told that, when times get tough in my business, I can trust God to bring me through. That God is 'on my side' and that he 'wants the best for me'. The hope being that God will return me to my previous place of comfort and prosperity. I am on a email prayer chain that sends me at least 5 emails per week. Now I don't want to belittle any attempt to draw closer to Father, but this chain is 99.9% prayers for sickness. Almost every one asks for wisdom for the doctors and a quick recovery back to the way thing were before. Is this what it means to trust God? Are we trusting that God, in the end, wants us to be comfortable and to 'enjoy his blessings'. What if trusting God meant living the kingdom life he describes and trusting that Jesus is in control of the story? What if trusting God meant that when my school starts teaching that homosexuality as a viable life option, I don't respond with anger and judgement. I don't act disgusted and outraged. Instead, I continue to pour my life's energy into people; giving all I have mentally, emotionally, spiritually and financially towards building this mysterious kingdom that Jesus seems so excited about. What if didn't judge the people who are 'ruining our schools' and 'corrupting our children' by crusading against their sinful message (its funny how Jesus didn't teach us to critique the sin of non-believers, but to hold fellow Christ-Followers to the highest of standards. We do the opposite) but instead focused our efforts on being the tireless advocate for people that Jesus was? That would be really tough because it would (1) take away the righteous feelings we get by fighting for the 'good side', and (2) force us to give up our securities and truly trust God to take care of our needs. The trust would be in God's ability to handle sin and sinful people (which he has shown he is eminently capable of ) and in his ability to sustain us as we do silly things like making sure our enemies are loved (not killed) and giving undeserving people the fruits of what we think we've 'earned'. Would we ever go so far as to say that our judgement of others sin, regardless of our intentions for that judgement, is every bit as evil and anti-kingdom as the sin that we are pointing out? That IS a message that I see Jesus preaching in the gospels, and the people were called Pharisees, remember?

So am I wrong this Christmas saga? When I say 'happy holidays' to my Muslim client instead of 'merry christmas' because I know that he's not a follower of Jesus, am I disgracing Christ? Have I let Jesus down. Should I not care about making making Muslims uncomfortable in favor of making SURE that he knows that I am a christian and this holiday is MINE? When my local government chooses to take down a nativity scene in the town square, is Jesus up there hoping that I speak for him in stating that our community will surely lose God's blessing for doing so? Am I wrong for thinking that all this is done to give the appearance of spirituality, but in fact is nothing more than a smokescreen over the foolish, painful, uncomfortable, dirty, unfair and gloriously beautiful life that we don't want to admit we're supposed to be living? When we complain that God is taking his hand of blessing off of America because of our lack of christian morals, are we not showing our true motivation, which is to stay comfortable, affluent and well-fed? If I choose to live the opposite life, will I be damned? If I choose to see the person behind the sin, and choose to build up the good in them without judgement, will I have to answer for that someday? Somehow I feel that I know Father well enough to say that I won't.

Its not about proving how noble and good we are. Its not about proving we are christians by standing for biblical truth. Its not about proving anything. Seek justice and trust God to provide for us. Sacrifice for others, show them lavish love, and trust God to keep you full. They will find Jesus through us showing them what he is really like. Jesus wan't about standing for things. He was about dying for us, and we should be about dying for others.

UPDATE: In an ironic twist, I just picked up a book this weekend that deals with many of the above issues. I'm about half-way through it, but its a great read. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dancing For King Herod

Check out a great talk from this Sunday (Dec. 7th) at Threads Church. A great comparison of the spell that our consumer culture puts on us and the bewitching dance that cost John The Baptist his life.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Be Like Bernie

I wanted to share a story with you all about my friend Bernie. I had a conversation with him recently about his encounter with a woman and her daughter in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in our city. Not your typical stage for Jesus to show us a glimpse of his kingdom.

Bernie was driving home from work when he went through the intersection of Oakland Dr and Milham Rd here in Portage. Because Bernie drives this same route every single day of his life, he is very familiar with this intersection. And he also knows how busy this intersection can be during rush hour, which is typically the time he is coming home from work. On this day, Bernie was stopped at the stoplight and noticed a woman pushing her car through the intersection. The reason he noticed was that a few cars honked at her because she was not able to get the vehicle through the intersection before the light went red. While watching her labor to get out of everyone's way, Bernie also noticed two younger gentlemen were jogging together along the sidewalk on the same side of the road as the woman. The two men didn't flinch as they ran right past this her and her daughter.

Now you have to understand that Bernie is just like the rest of us. He struggles with responding in situations like this, often convincing himself that his involvement wouldn't really help, or that there were other places that he had to be and he couldn't be late. We all do that. And so the light turned green and Bernie continued to follow the car in front of him. However, something in him made him stop and turn around. Bernie helped the woman push the vehicle to the nearest parking lot a few hundred feet down the road. When they stopped he began speaking with her and found out that she had just lost her job and her car had run out of gas. She was very emotional and began to cry and said that her phone had just been shut off as well. Bernie told her that he had a few gallons of gas at his home which was less than a mile away and offered to bring it back to help her get to a gas station. The woman was so thankful for him doing this. Then, when Bernie returned, he asked her if he could have the pleasure of filling up her tank for her! She was beside herself at his offer and took him up on it.

Now, this isn't life-changing stuff. It was just a few minutes of manual labor and $30 in gas. Not a huge deal; unless you are that woman. For her, it meant the world and gave a glimpse of hope in a real difficult time. To that woman, Bernie was a life-saver.

What if we all lived that way? What if we all were willing to respond to someone in need with the same active, intentional love that Bernie showed here? He never asked her why she had lost her job; she could have been a bad employee. He never asked why she hadn't saved enough money for times like this; she may have blown the money she had on useless things. He didn't worry that his money was going to be wasted, and he didn't look to evaluate how worthy she was to recieve his assistance. Instead, he responded to a need with no strings attached to his love. I think that this is what heaven will be like.

I just finished a conversation this morning with my friend Mike. Among many topics we discussed was the dynamic that Jesus alluded to with regards to his providing for our needs. It seems that the life he wants for us is one where we focus our efforts, time and assets 100% in the direction of others. Then, he promises, that he will meet our every need on the back end. Most times that provision comes through another of his followers that is looking out for others 100% and we just happen to be the recipient of that focus. That kind of life system leaves no room for pride or need for accomplishment, and I think that is why we resist it. I really can't find any place where Jesus says to 'balance' providing for ourselves and family, and also seeking that others are provided for. Its actually a complete lack of balance in favor of endless sacrifice. I give all to you, and trust that God will replenish what I have given. I think of the 12, and Jesus' specific instructions to take nothing with them as they went out. He instructed them to go out and love all with EVERYTHING they had, and to trust that they would never starve or be left naked without cover. And it was through this dynamic that the greatest revolution in the history of time began. How does this play itself out in this time and space? It probably looks like Bernie pushing a car down Milham Rd, dumping two gallons of gas into a tank that isn't his, and then filling it the rest of the way.