Saturday, January 26, 2008
"I do not believe that Jesus Christ is the answer to a 'God-shaped vacuum' in the human heart, as a philosopher once put it. This is a nice text for a sophomore in a Christian college who is searching for an intellectual argument for the experience of God. The problem with a vacuum is that it is indiscriminate and will draw in anything that is floating around in the air. I am more attracted to the wisdom of Michael Polanyi who once wrote, 'Our believing is conditioned at its source by our belonging.' Psychologists tell us that forming early attachments, called bonding, is an essential basis for healthy and effective personal relationships in life. Jesus said, 'where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them' (Matt 18:20). I grew up with a strong sense of belonging. I have never had trouble believing." (from "Dancing With Wolves While Feeding the Sheep)
My Reflection: In a modernist approach to church, emphasis is placed on believing the right things, determining where and with whom you belong. Right beliefs (think "same" beliefs) is essential to apologetics. In my experience, this often leads to distinctions of being either in or out depending on your ideology, theology, or lifestyle. In a postmodern world, it is essential to recognize the importance of belonging in the process of believing. Certainly, not everything is up for grabs, there is truth to engage and own as formative as the people of God, but the context of this formation is the church. In a postmodern world, the church is the apologetic. It is the community of faith as a particular group of people that bears witness to what is believable and worth believing. Jesus himself said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35). Where the church is struggling to live faithfully in the kingdom of God, where the church is wrestling to actually be a real community, you will find skeptics and seekers who encounter Jesus in a context of love and grace through the lives of its people.
Friday, January 25, 2008
In our house church small group we got things started by sharing what our initial reactions were to the word "holy." Two of the most commonly shared responses were: 1) a "holier-than-thou" attitude and 2) the horrible feeling of "not ever being able to measure up." I imagine a lot of people share those same sentiments. Yet the author of 1Peter writes, "But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: 'Be holy, because I am holy'" (vv15-16).
How did holiness become such bad news?
In the wider Christian culture, holiness has been defined mostly in negative terms as far back as I can remember, almost exclusively as "being set apart from..." And without fail, this is extrapolated to mean "set apart from the world." This bit of unfortunate exegesis has, of course, created a boatload of problems.
According to the new book unChristian from the folks at the Barna Group, today's generation of young adults associates Christians with being judgmental, hypocritical, too political, and sheltered (wow, sounds like a fun bunch!). But I could have told you this. It doesn't take much to know that the set-apart-from-kind of holiness that a majority of churches have taught has led to an anemic theology equating holiness not with doing good, but with not drinking, not smoking, not swearing, not associating with the "wrong kind of people." The latter has meant, among other things, being anti-this-or-that, most regrettably, anti-gay.
Yet when you read 1Peter 1 and 2, there is an altogether different picture of holiness, and thus, quite a different picture of what it means to be a disciple.
First, the word holiness actually means to be "set apart for", particularly "set apart for God," not necessarily "set apart from the world." As one of my small group mates observed, the call to be holy is a call to be "holy in all you do" (v.15), which is stated in the positive, not in the negative. This is markedly different than being holy simply by abstaining from said things. From this passage, holiness is primarily something you do because you are a redeemed person, not something you don't out of fear of being contaminated or because of imagined religious superiority.
And what exactly does holiness call us to do? 1Peter goes on: "Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart" (v22). According to this passage, holiness looks like loving others deeply. Obeying truth (something that Christians argue for all the time) is supposed to lead us not away from the world, but into deep love for others in the world.
Secondly, this begs the question, If we are to be holy as he is holy, How was Jesus holy exactly? I mean if Jesus was that concerned about purity, why does he not separate himself from all that is unclean and morally questionable? Instead the gospels describe a Jesus who seemingly does the opposite. Sent into the world by the love of the Father for humanity, Jesus touches the sinner, the leper, the prostitute, the diseased, the demonized, the poor, the dispossessed, the unclean with divine grace and mercy. Jesus didn't turn his eyes or his heart away from sinful humanity, but turned his face toward "the wrong kind of people," broken and enslaved to a fallen world, in order to save them.
You see Jesus encounters the world as the Holy One of God. But instead of his holiness separating him from people, his is a holiness that goes out seeking to include the sinner. It is a holiness that sanctifies by an act of inclusion, rather than exclusion. Through the incarnation, Jesus opens up the holy community he alone shared with the Father through the Spirit to include all of humanity, even those not in Christ and those not morally pure.
The incarnation redefines or corrects our definition of the holiness.
Ironically, it was the religious leaders who demanded a different kind of holiness from Jesus, one that was religious and exclusive, but not human. This is still the same misunderstanding and demand many Christians make today. In the name of God, holiness has come to mean being set apart in a weird, abstract, hardcore religious kind of way that makes Christians known more for who and what they are against than who and what they are for. It's tragic that Christians are known more for being judgment than just, more critical than kind. If this is in fact holiness, than it is a holiness that Jesus came to destroy.
"Certainly there is a call to purity that holiness demands" you might ask? And the answer is yes. The bible does call us to not engage in certain activities and behaviors just as it calls us to act positively in other ways. Both are aspects of holiness to be sure. But that's where this passage is also helpful. It concludes: "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good" (1Peter 2:1-3). Here the sin we are to rid ourselves from inherent in becoming holy is defined in relational terms, not religious terms. That's because sin is inherently social, not religious. Sin is more than doing bad things. Sin is ultimately dehumanization. Sin is anything that works against the humanization of persons through the Holy Spirit. All sin at it's core is a relational deficit. If we are to abstain, it is because it dehumanizes others, including ourselves. Malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander - this is what makes us unholy. Which explains why holiness looks like love - because love humanizes by upholding the dignity and worth of others made in God's image.
That's why the call to holiness is more than simply abstaining from the easier pickings and mostly theologically irrelevant matters of smoking, drinking or watching R-rated movies, but the call to rid ourselves of the much weightier and more insipid vices within our own hearts that prevent us from loving others deeply and well. It is a call to obey truth so that our hearts can be purified from the kind of sin that sets us apart from others, healed of our unredeemed brokenness so we can be set on a path to loving others, even our enemies. Holiness is a call to set our hearts aright in relationship to God and to others that results in greater love and joy, for ourselves and others, which following close to Jesus and obeying all that he commands actually brings. This is the growing up in salvation that is the fruit of a holy life. This is the spiritual nourishment we crave knowing the Lord is good.
What is holiness? It looks like Jesus.
This is holiness as grace. This is holiness as good news.
Monday, January 21, 2008
[Excerpt] Address at March on Washington
August 28, 1963. Washington, D.C.
I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
Amen. Thank you Dr. King!
Saturday, January 19, 2008
My daughter and friends love the youth theatre! Here are some pictures of the opening night of Starlight Production's "Joseph" and a recent performance after-party with our extended family from Epic.
We're all very proud of them!
Especially their moms
Signing autographs for fans after the show
Special fans Auntie Bea and Auntie Emily
Very cold, but very happy, too.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
As I read the newspaper this morning and checked out the forecast, I saw nothing but green dots marked over the map of the Southland, meaning the air quality was good everywhere. This only happens after it rains.
This is what forgiveness feels like. Or at least it's supposed to. Over my lifetime I have often wondered why it didn't, first for me, and later as a pastor conversing and counseling many people struggling in their own shame, drowning in their own self-hatred, imprisoned by a ruthless condemnation with their own finger pointing back at them.
Christians know cognitively that Jesus has died for their sins. They get that. But forgiveness is not just a matter of the mind, but of the heart. It is not merely something to know, but to know, as in experience.
Several years ago my professor at Fuller Seminary, Dr.Ray Anderson led us to a passage in the OT that shed so much light on Jesus' death and resurrection and changed my own experience of forgiveness. I have since tried to pass along that insight, encouragement, and healing to others.
In Leviticus 16, the Lord through Moses gives instructions for how the priest is to make atonement for the sins of the Israelites each year, known as the Day of Atonement. From the community of the Israelites, the priest is to take two male goats. One will be a sin offering to the Lord. This goat is slaughtered, and its blood sprinkled on the altar in the Most Holy Place because of "the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins had been."
But the other goat the priest is to keep alive. He is to lay both hands atop the head of the goat and confess over it "all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites - all their sins - and put them on the goat's head." Then the goat is released into the wilderness, where "the goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place." This is where we get the term "scapegoat."
We are often taught that Jesus died for our sins, that his blood covers us, making us clean. And this is true. This is the first goat. Jesus as the perfect Lamb of God became the sin offering to the Lord for all sin for all persons for all time. But this teaching, I discovered, often fell short in experience. Many, including myself, knew we were clean because of Christ's sacrifice, yet never quite felt clean. We knew we were forgiven, but didn't exactly experience forgiveness. This, I now realize, is because though Christ's blood covers our sin, we still from the inside, see the sin his blood covers. We are forgiven, but not released from the sin we see.
This is where the second goat is necessary. The live goat carried the sins of the people away from them and beyond the horizon. I imagine the entire Israelite community watching as the goat was released, carrying with him their sins to a faraway place never to be seen again. This is also what Jesus did - he took our sins onto himself. In other words, the cross is the "remote place" our sins are taken from us to go, never to be seen again.
In David's Psalm 103, we see both of these aspects of forgiveness: "Praise the Lord...who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases...as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." We not only need to be covered in the blood of Jesus, but we need to be released from our sins. This is how we experience true forgiveness and the healing of shame - through the love of Jesus and the power of the cross.
Forgiveness is what happens when the rain of His mercy falls upon us in our contrition and confession with humility. There is nothing quite like it. You know it, you see green dots everywhere.