Faith And Works

December 07, 2009
  When most think about God they think of rules, commands, judgments and wrath—with the cherished counterbalance of grace and forgiveness sprinkled in. In American evangelicalism the goal of faith appears to center on “believing” the right thing—believing the gospel. But if “belief” is the only goal of the gospel, then once a person believes, life is futureless—we’ve done it all; we’ve finished the race because the finish line is “spiritual enlightenment.”

  I’m not suggesting that belief isn’t critical and the place we must start—it is—but isn’t there more? Is it possible that God’s dream for human destiny is more than just believing a message? It seems to me that Jesus and the early church were less about believing in something in order to “get ready for eternity" than they were about creating a community of people who lived differently—precisely because they “believed” something unique. Their belief was an alternative vision of reality, which demanded a nonconformist value system from the one being heralded by the religious and political contexts they found themselves in. These were a people who testified to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ by embracing a new dimension of living—one committed to death, if need be, in order to fulfill the missio dei (the mission of God) in the world. This bunch believed that the events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection—and the story that those events carry forward into the present—really do make sense of life. These were men and women who aligned themselves with that story, which made them different—they belonged to Jesus Christ who was present to live in and through them. But relatively few think of Christianity as a call to enter a new kind of living—a life jacked up with adventure, mission and divine destiny. Faith for many is nothing more than fire insurance from hell, some acquiescence to rule-keeping (it’s the least we can do), and a safety net of forgiveness when we break the rules. On this view the human experience of faith isn’t much more than a life of stumbling and bumbling around “holding on” to faith the best we can till Christ sees fit to bring us home.

  But what if the Christian life is supposed to be more than that? What if it is a calling for us to step into something larger than ourselves? What if God is inviting us into something more than legalism and rules? What if he is inviting us to participate in some kind of divine quest? SOMETHING ‘TOOKISH’ In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit, Biblo Baggins lives contentedly in his home at Bag End, Hobbiton Hill, until one spring morning the wizard Gandalf visits him. Gandalf, sensing that there was a hunger for adventure beating secretly in Bilbo’s heart, said to him, “There is more to you than you know.” Bilbo, it turns out, was part of the Took clan, on his mother’s side—they were the ancient defenders of the Shrine. Galdalf knew that, though Bilbo may have inherited the easy-going nature of the Hobbits from his father’s side, his Tookish thirst for adventure would eventually lead him to go beyond the safety of the Shrine into the adventure that would save the world.

  I think God put something “Tookish” in all of us. Erwin McManus writes, “There was a voice screaming inside my head, Don’t sleep through your dreams! Ever heard that voice? It calls you like a temptress to abandon the monotony of life and to begin an adventure. It threatens to leave you in the mundane if you refuse to risk all that you have for all that could be.” I think there is something in us that wants to be part of saving the world. True, we have those things we inherited from Adam that make us cower and lunge into survival and protection mode, but we also have a drive in us that wants to make a difference—that wants to glorify God. We don’t have to settle for being bean-counting legalists who only color between the lines—we can be spiritual pioneers; adventurers who dare to explore what a life fully committed to God can really look like. A TIME-CRITICAL WORLD God has invited us to be participants in establishing his kingdom in the world. God does not force that participation on us; we must choose to participate through our obedience.

  Truth is we don’t have all that much time—one life; one shot. This ought to freak us out a little. We ought to be a little crazy about seizing each day—trying to jam them full of as many right choices and as much Holy Spirit activity we can possibly say YES to. Jesus said with a palpable sense of urgency, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). We need to keep that sense of urgency alive in us. This helps: the psalmist said, “Teach us to number our days” (Psa. 90:12). In other words, it’s good for us to think about the fact that we are going to die. Get that. You are going to die. So am I. We are going to expire, croak, become dust-lickers. Living life with this awareness isn’t being morbid; it makes us live better. I want my days to matter. I don’t want to be guilty of living in the sin of sloth. Sloth is defined as the lack of desire to perform work or expend effort. It is one of the historical seven deadly sins. Sloth, in the context of spiritual life, means we don’t make it a priority to do what we should, or to seek for the grace to change what we should in ourselves. We become apathetic, which means we have no feeling or motivation to act. We see this sin present in Israel as Jesus calls out over the city of Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate” (Luke 13:34-35).

  For Christians, spiritual sloth sometimes means we really don’t care what the Bible teaches about something, so we put off reading or asking about it. Sloth keeps people from participating in challenging spiritual experiences or events. It’s easier to spend our time glutting our souls with TV dramas and comedies. It’s much more work to engage with people or ideas that call us to action: to loving our neighbor, helping the poor, or telling the truth. Being IN the faith and experiencing salvation does not mean you are DOING the faith and participating in the missio dei. I think receiving Jesus is different from being an apprentice of Jesus, his mission and his ways. Being an apprentice of the Christ suggests you are not just believing in the message of redemption and experiencing personal forgiveness—that is certainly where it begins, but that is not where it ends. Following Jesus is an adventure in being counter-cultural. It is being on a mission to change the world. This is beyond simply dedicating one’s life to faithful service in order to build up a local church congregation, its programs, numbers and facilities—this is about a change of heart, about us putting our skin in the game of bringing God’s justice into a unjust world. Vows help us stay “in the zone” of fervent obedience. But obedience is not the fruit of simple human effort; it is the fruit of grace. This is the only place human effort works…when it is an effort to step into grace.

Is Nancy Pelosi The Devil?

February 06, 2009
For those of us who are Christ-followers, it doesn’t take long for us to get offended as we look at what’s going on in American culture. We live in an upside down world where good is called evil and evil, good. It grieves us, and it should. It grieves God’s heart as well. This past weekend Nancy Pelosi was on NBC’s “This Week” program and said some things that offended me to the core. Ms. Pelosi, who is a rabid liberal voice, was pushing funding for family planning services as an important part of the strategy for our recovering economy. Why? Because if we eliminate births of children, states will have more money to spend on other things. She apparently only views children as a cost, not a resource to our world. One conservative pundit quipped, “The Speaker’s bottom line: Fewer children reduces the cost to the state. And fewer politicians like Pelosi reduces the cost to the children.” Well said pundit guy. Our culture has lost sight of God. Far from honoring God, it honors things like self, pleasure, personal advantage, comfort, and convenience. As society drifts farther from God and his ways, the face of evil comes into clearer focus. Evildoers seem bolder than ever; they no longer hide their tactics. Celebrities build careers out of doing the things they would have kept secret a generation ago. Evil is now public. It’s praised and rewarded. It’s something to be aspired to, not kept under wraps. Evil is right there in front of us. We may be grieved about what we see happening, but we will add to the problem if we do not respond appropriately. Sadly, the appropriate response is not obvious. In fact, it is counterintuitive. What should Christ-followers do about the evil we see? How should we respond? Let me discuss a three-pronged strategy. We must not let anger motivate us. Though anger is a natural response to the evil we see in the world around us, we are warned to not let it drive us to action (Eph. 4:26). Instead, we are to be driven by things like faith, hope and love. We may want to respond in anger and to use truth in a sword-like manner, poking and cutting away at what we know is wrong, but that is not Christlike. James wrote, “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:20). We must respect those who disagree with us. Respecting the right of people to disagree with the truth is definitely counterintuitive. Yet historical Christian thought has always held to this view. Paul’s instruction was clear about how we should talk to those who reject the truth: “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. Then they will come to their senses and escape from the devil’s trap. For they have been held captive by him to do whatever he wants” (2 Tim. 2:24-26, NLT). In another place Paul tells us that when we deal with truth-rejecters we should “slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men” (Titus 3:2). In the same context we are told we have no right to attack those who oppose us because, “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures” (v. 3) In other words, we should always be humbled by the notion that, except for the grace of God, we would be as deceived as anyone we encounter in the culture in which we live. That should be a kind of “chill pill” to our emotionally jacked-up rhetoric. These texts are clear; we don’t have the luxury of attacking those who disagree with us. Insulting and name-calling are never options for the believer. Besides, people are not the enemy. So, who, then, is “the enemy”? Lot’s of Christians think we need to fight people. They have identified the “outsiders”—they are the abortionists, civil libertarians, pacifists, activist federal judges, feminists, Planned Parenthood, Democrats, environmentalists, proponents of big government, secularists, humanists, welfare advocates, gays, Darwinists, anyone who tries to raise your taxes, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, anybody who is soft on illegal immigrants and supports gun control; pornographers, organized labor, and the NEA. But scripture is clear that, “We are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness and powers in the spiritual world” (Eph. 6:23, CEV). People like Nancy Pelosi are not our enemies. She is not the devil (though I don’t doubt that much of her reasoning comes from him). Once conservative commentator claimed Ms. Pelosi acted like a government official from Red China in her interview this past weekend. That kind of labeling and name-calling may make for captivating television, but Christians must not join in—at least not in the name of Christ. Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person” (Mat. 5:39). Instead we are to love them, pray for them, and try to influence them. We must find a way to influence. When Christians feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, we have typically lashed out at anyone we believe opposes God’s ways. If we do not want to fail in the future we must learn from our history. The kingdom of God is not about the use of power. It’s about the hope of influence, which is a kind of antipower. When power is the strategy and battle plan, the goal becomes forcing your opponents to think “like-I-do.” Power relies on force, leverage, superior numbers, maneuvering. It’s about vanquishing enemy, utterly annihilating your opponent. No mutual respect and bridge-building here. Jesus introduced the idea of changing the world through antipower. Jesus gained influence in our lives vis-à-vis his sacrifice, not his fist. As Christ-followers, we are to imitate Jesus’ sacrificial gesture. “To this you were called,” scripture says, “because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). This is how we make room for God’s kingdom to change people and ultimately the world. The struggle of sacrifice, kindness, forgiveness, humility, and love is an unavoidable, inescapable theme of the Bible. Influence is found on a narrow, straight, and hard road that seems to violate common sense. It requires self-sacrifice, humility, grace, goodness, altruism, and incautious, reckless love. To follow Christ is a call to surrender in the culture war—to ditch our power weapons of choosing sides, leveraging political alliances, demonizing the opposition, and forming pressure groups and using pressure tactics. We discover that only the cross really exhausts evil. Influence is the Good Samaritan. You bind up your enemy’s wounds and care for him at your own expense. Influence is never safe; it requires involvement and engagement, while power wages war from a safe distance. It’s risky and won’t bring personal glory. But it WILL win the heart of our neighbors. When we follow Jesus’ example of authentic sacrifice, we stop investing our energies in defending or advancing our own religion, ideologies, agenda, nationalism, or tribe. Instead, we love as God loves—without reservation or condition. We no longer live in an “eye for eye” or “tooth for tooth” world; we don’t return evil for evil or hatred for hatred. Instead, we give a blessing. We no longer live in an “us” versus “them” frame of mind. We drop labels. We only see people; people for whom Christ died. Is this hard? You bet. So hard it may kill you. But isn’t that what it means to takes up one’s cross to follow Jesus? From its inception Christianity has always involved death on some level. Why should we think it would be any different today? Jesus overcame evil in this world and changed people’s lives by sacrificing himself for them. He didn’t war against people to change them, nor did he enact change by starting a political organization or by badmouthing sin. There was nothing forceful about Jesus. He didn’t come to earth to conquer us. Instead, he came in weakness. He came to die. This is not Patton or MacArthur, Rambo or Iron Man. This is Jesus. He is the ultimate example of what it looks like to win by losing. Only God would promote something so preposterous.

Chasing Butterflies With President Obama

January 29, 2009
BARACK OBAMA, the 44th president of the United States heralds the promise of a new beginning for America. With reckless abandon President Obama is telling us that this is a new day; that a new dawn of positive change is upon us no matter how challenging the times are. Though I don’t think any politician can make good on the kind of future President Obama is promising, I gotta be honest—I love the way it sounds! Something in me loves the language of hope and change. There is such innocence about it. And I love innocence. Innocence is purity without corruption. It’s jammed with trust and curiosity, without ever considering the possible positive or negative outcomes of its position. A toddler running out into the street, chasing a butterfly is an example of innocence at work. There is a raw, wonderful quality about being willing to chase butterflies without thought as to where you will end up. I get that innocence can get you into trouble…chasing butterflies into the street can ruin a perfectly good day. But that being said, being overly cautious and viewing life through the lenses of gloom and doom will cause you to never even notice the butterflies. Then every day turns out to be a bad one. It probably won’t be long before the hope President Obama is touting starts yielding diminishing returns. Political power and maneuvering just aren’t powerful enough to really fix all that ails the human community. Those of us who are Christians should get that. We know the “fix” we need isn’t the result of human effort or national resolve; it’s the stuff of God’s kingdom. And that kingdom is still on the come—it’s here a little, but not yet fully. And it won’t be here fully until Jesus arrives. That means that this side of eternity all human systems are broken to some degree, though some more broken than others. I’m hoping the Obama administration will give us the best possible version of a broken political system. Hopefully, caution, wisdom, accountability and the like, will shape the decision-making process of the new administration. But in the process, I refuse to watchdog their every move as an over-reactionary, fear-generating purveyor of woe and danger. I want to believe. Just hours after the November election an old minister friend of mine sent out an email warning of the evils that were sure to come as a result of an Obama administration. He claimed the economy was going to spin into a “major depression”; that our military was going to be “emasculated” and forced into a “shameful retreat”; that millions are going to be tortured and murdered around the world by ”emboldened jihadists”; that there would be open persecution of Christians; that the Obama administration will create “coerced” community service programs that will force people to work for free; that new laws will “outlaw home and private schooling”; and that there will be a “silencing of opposition voices through the reenactment of the Fairness Doctrine." Dude. I wanted to move to Canada after I read his thoughts. Paul instructed Christ-followers: “I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil” (Rom. 16:19). The challenge here is that believers need to focus on good more than we do on evil. That doesn’t mean we are unaware of evil—we are just not to major on it. Life is sweeter when we live that way. But my preacher friend was not being innocent about evil; it was his total focus. There wasn’t a single word about any possible good that could come out of an Obama administration. Ideologically and philosophically, I don’t stand toe to toe with Barak Obama (I don’t like his position on abortion, science and ethics, size of government, etc.). But that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to chase butterflies with him. If President Obama turns out to be a huge disappointment or a complete disaster, there will be another election in four years. If an oncoming delivery truck hits us as a nation while we’re chasing butterflies with him, we’ll recover. Truth is, whether you like it or not, we’re in this together, so you might as well enjoy being an innocent butterfly chaser instead of a negative, cynical naysayer. As a teaching pastor, I always urge folks to fight to maintain their innocence. Whether they are in social work, law enforcement, medicine, retail, or wherever, I implore them to use their faith to stay hopeful and idealistic. Often it is only the newbies on the job who come across that way. After efforts produce little fruit and ideals run smack into manipulative agendas, folks get jaded and cynical and lose their innocence. I don’t think Christ-followers should yield. True, things may not turn out the way we had hoped, but some change will come and some change is always better than none. That focus keeps you on board as a butterfly chaser. You may not like our president or you may think his rhetoric of hope is a delusion, but you don’t have to be jaded and cynical. Decide to pray for our new president. At the very least, God’s promises, “The Lord can control a king's mind as he controls a river; he can direct it as he pleases” (Proverbs 21:1, New Century Version). We should look expectantly for the good God is going to be working through this new leader. Keep in mind that historically God has used leaders the likes of King Nebuchadnezzar to forward his agenda. Neb was the Bible king-guy who built a statue of himself and made people worship him! (He had issues.) But God still worked through him. God still uses people who are not as right as we think they should be. As we begin this new journey with President Obama at the helm of our country, I dare you to open up to the idea and hope that American can change for the better under his leadership. I am. Though I’m not a card-carrying Democrat, I’m smiling as I yell with reckless abandon, “YES WE CAN!” Me thinks that butterfly can fly.

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