Making the most of it

Typically, when I blog, I’m writing about some concept I’m wrestling with, or some argument I lost or posting an occasional book review. Today, I’d like to do something a bit different. I want to tell you about a man I know.

Brian is my brother-in-law. He married my wife’s sister, Rachel, who has been one of my dearest friends for the last ten years of my life. When they got married, I felt blessed because I genuinely thought he’d push my friend (by that point my sister-in-law) to draw closer to Christ. Since that’s what I think a spouse’s primary purpose is, it was a good feeling.

Brian works at a bank. I don’t think it’s where he thought he’d be long term, but he’s happy there. He understands finances and federal statutes far better than I ever could. If anyone from my home town ever asks where they should bank, I send them to Brian. He is gentle, yet able to be firm (as I’ve personally witnessed as his two year old daughter and my two year old son duked it out over toys this Christmas). While I don’t live close to him any longer, I still get a strong sense that he is a good husband, father and employee living out Biblical principles in every aspect of his life.

On my most recent journey to Crestview, he shared a story of how a local woman needed help and he did what he could. He’d never met her. She was simply a customer at his bank who he had spoken to a few times over the phone. We also talked about how his bank will frequently process bills even if the client overdrafts. They don’t want people’s power to go out, so they process the electric bill as an act of good faith. He said something that struck me, “We probably shouldn’t, but we do.” And that is thing: there is much that Brian does that might seem foolish to the world, but he does it.

Jesus said “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit,” (Matthew 7:16-17). And Brian is the kind of guy I frequently see bearing good fruit. He’s not perfect, but that’s not really the point. He has good roots, strongly planted in the foundation of Christ, and I think that’s something worth sharing.

I hope everyone knows a Brian. Someone who takes the phrase, “making the most of it,” and changes it from something negative to something that honors God. To Him be the glory.

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Culture Wars Do Not Equal Culture Making

I have at least one more post in the works about The Dark Knight Rises, but I’m going to take a break from Batman for a minute to address something that’s currently pressing on my mind.

The whole concept of “culture wars” is something that bothers me. In Strachan’s article (who I admire greatly), he rightly points out that Christians are called to stand for the Kingdom. But I struggle to identify how arguing with Americans who are not Christians equals standing up for God’s righteousness? It’s not that I don’t empathize with those who are concerned that America will go the way of Rome, which fell apart largely due to a cultural collapse, but I don’t think that’s synonymous with building God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.

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The Kingdom starts with the Church, of that I am more and more convinced. The folks with the Barna Group or Willow Creek all suggest that the Church (ecumenically speaking) is not what it is supposed to be. How can Christians honestly rebuke a culture that doesn’t follow God’s standards when we don’t follow those same standards?*

I cannot stress enough how important I think it is for the Church to look to its own house first. James K.A. Smith refers to culture-making, and I think this is more appropriate to the overall discussion:

Culture-making –– unfolding the latent possibilities that have been unfolded into creation –– is a vocation given to us as image bearers of God. Just as the Fall means not that we stop desiring but rather that our desire becomes disordered, so too sin does not mean that we stop being culture makers; rather, it means that we do this poorly, sinfully, unjustly, (p. 178; Desiring the Kingdom, 2009)

I think what Smith is ultimately getting at is simple: we don’t change our culture by boycotting, or supporting, financial institutions. We change our culture by coming together to be made unified in Christ, to be filled with the Spirit, to confess our failures before God and repent. Once we do those things, then we go out and live as Christians (i.e. those who look like Christ). It revolutionized the Roman Empire. And it can work again.

This may sound idealistic, or maybe even heretical to some (that accusation seems quite popular these days), but I absolutely think the Church will remain culturally inept until the Bride of Christ returns to her Groom. After all, the seven letters weren’t addressed to seven nations; they were addressed to the Church. The only way to effect real change is to start with the House of God. We will go much farther with a full cup.

Drawn In

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We are attracted to light.

My son (pictured above) knows this first hand. When viewing the synchronized light show at the downtown square where we live, he could not take his eyes off the nearby tree that was constantly flashing from one color to the next. He had to touch them, and even tried to blow them out at one point because he was concerned they were hot. It was a moment to cherish, no doubt.

But that is not the end of its importance.

It reminded me of the magi, and the light that drew them to Christ. And then there’s the shepherds, and the angelic light that drew them to that treasured manger. Peter was drawn to the glorified Christ, Paul was changed through a blinding light. Make no mistake, our longing for light can be clearly seen throughout Scripture.

This makes Jesus’ words about the reasons why we cling to the light, or avoid it, take on a powerful tone this season. But it also makes me wonder: does the light of Christ shine through me?

Jesus said we can’t hide the light when we’re people of God, and then reminded us that we are light so that people will see God. So, much like the stars and angels of old, we beckon to those who have not met Christ or who have maybe lost their way. We cry out on their behalf, and we know that God listens.

Are you a light this Christmas? If you are, will your light shine throughout the year?

Star of Wonder, Star of Light

When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. – Matthew 2:10-11

The star that led the magi to Jesus was an exceedingly awesome light. Something was special about it. It wasn’t just a really bright star, nor was it special simply because it was out of the norm. This light had meaning, and the magi understood that.

A kingdom was breaking into the world, and it was starting at the birth of the new King. That’s powerful. And yet, for many, Christmas is a time that seems without power. In fact, the lights of Christmas often pale in comparison to the beauty of the star that led the wise men to Christ.

Part of this is due to a failure to understand that Advent is not so much about gifts and turkey, although those things are good. Giving is crucial to Christmas, but not in the way most Americans think of it.

Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, And if you give yourself to the hungry And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness And your gloom will become like midday. And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell. – Isaiah 58:6-12

This is the majesty of that star which guided foreigners so long ago. We aren’t just supposed to follow the star to Christ’s manger, we’re supposed to keep following. All the way to the Cross, so that we can shine brightly through the Resurrection of Christ.

We should all shine to such a degree. Don’t you want to be called a repairer of the broken, or a restorer of the streets? I do.

What’s in a name?

But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.” – Matthew 1:20-23

Wk1.LongingNames matter to God. As a Church History teacher, its often difficult for me to deal with the “Saul converts to Paul” type of theology. It’s hard for me to look past the simple facts: Saul and Paul are the same name in different languages. Same with Peter and Simon.

But the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that God is quite interested in giving each of His children a new name. Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, John the Baptist… each of them were given a name specially chosen for them by God.

See, He knew them better than they knew themselves. Gideon was a wheat farmer, but God knew he could be a brave warrior. Jacob was a liar, but God knew Jacob would never quit striving with Him. It’s a powerful thing to see ourselves through the eyes of our Lord. It’s transforming. It’s liberating.

And its amazing to see how this plays out in the birth of His Son. God tells Joseph (you know, the guy having second thoughts about Mary because she’s pregnant and it ain’t his kid)… God tells this guy that Mary’s child is important. More than that: He’s a savior. And then God gives Joseph a special task: name Him. Why? Because our names matter to God. And He knows what our true names are.

Worthless? No, God calls you a Treasure (Deuteronomy 26:18). Broken? God calls you Healed (James 5:16). I could go on, but I won’t clutter this thought with more words.

Tonight, tomorrow, this week, dwell on this question: what does God call you? What is your true name, that only He knows?

Breaking a Sweat

When Jesus says, “love the Lord your God with all your…mind,” I am fully tuned in.

“Love God with my thoughts and intellect? Dude, I’m there.”

Of course, that’s not the whole verse. See, Jesus also tells us to love God with our hearts, souls, and bodies. But like many other Christians out there, I tend to focus on the one I’m best at.

12_82_70---Firewood_webFor instance, I’m not too keen on working out. Or physical labor of any kind, for that matter. Despite a lifetime of experiencing the blessing of work. When I lived in Colorado, we would chop wood and there was something wholly invigorating about it. The pine chips scattered about. The other guys raising their axes high in the air, and then bringing them down like swift justice on the logs standing on end. The sound. The air. All of it came together to make for an experience I enjoyed, in spite of blisters and sweat and aching muscles.

But that was, unfortunately, a mountain-top experience. That’s not how I lived throughout the other 6 days of the week, and it is certainly not how I live now. In other words, I don’t love God with my body.

But it’s not just an issue of neglecting some aspect of my relationship with God. It’s about exhausting other aspects.

I’m reading four different books right now. Four. And those are just the ones I read apart from preparing for my class lectures. Not to mention the blogs, the articles, and the countless journals I read all in an effort to think Biblically and thus love God with my mind. Of course, my mind won’t be of any use if it’s mush.

This business of loving God requires us to labor in more than one area. Simply breaking a mental sweat, or a physical one, will not bring us into true intimacy with Christ. We have to strive to be whole people.

I John puts it like this:

If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.

We have to get rid of the darkness. Any maybe that means working out for 20 minutes each day, Or reading a book. Or honestly dealing with our emotions. Whatever it is, God will show up when we do. And that’s encouraging.

Am I liberated?

Jesus liberated us from mind games. If we are into philosophy we might have a hard time with Jesus. He does not lend himself to our games. Jesus preferred solitude and silence over study. He did study the scriptures, but whenever He wanted clarification He went away, alone and apart from the crowd. – Richard Rohr, Jesus as Liberator

Brother Rohr is not my favorite author. I enjoyed Wild Man to Wise Man, but his blogs, articles, and daily meditations often leave me frustrated (the same can be said of Jim Wallis’ writings, but that’s for different reasons). My most common thought is this: “if that’s true, why don’t you back it up with Scripture?” I know that this isn’t the Spirit of Discernment at work, but rather the spirit of division. And so, I continue to read those I don’t agree with (as well as thosethat I do) believing that I don’t have everything figured out. And every now and then, this kind of thing pays off.

In Rohr’s meditation for today, he touched on a subject that I have given a lot of thought to recently. When Jesus needed clarification or rejuvenation, He went off alone (i.e. Matthew 14:23, Mark 6:47, John 6:15). I’ve been mulling this over in my head quite a bit. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it the need for “Scripture meditation, prayer, and intercession.” The idea is a simple one: we need time away from everything. Not vacation. Not time off. Rather, time to renew our mindsand strengthen our resolve.

This isn’t something I’m particularly good at accomplishing. But I’m working on it. Simple steps, like riding in the car without music (and without constant planning going on in my head), are a start. Refusing to constantly have Netflix playing in the background is another beginner’s move.

We all need solitude. Mainly because, in truth, we’re never completely alone. However, when it’s really just me and God, that’s when I can really listen.

Free me, Lord, to hear Your truth. Teach me to relinquish the day’s cares. Your grace and mercy are so magnificent, Lord. As Your truth permeates my spirit, may the rivers of life that You so graciously provide spring forth from the innermost parts of my soul. Free me, Lord, that I may in turn help free others.

Pots & Kettles

Recently, I read an article from The Blaze about the evil motives behind Sesame Street. My initial reaction was of the knee-jerk persuasion. I ranted about hypocrisy and double standards, highlighting that the author of the article was in fact pushing his own agenda, much like the liberals who he blasted.

The next day, I did a little more digging in the book covered in the article, and stumbled upon a slightly more thorough (and decidedly not Glenn Beck affiliated) article.

All of this goes to say one thing: I have a confession. IN the midst of my tirade against what I perceive as the “insane right”,” I engaged in the kind of behavior that I loathe about them. I jumped to conclusions just because an article was associated with Mr. Beck (and its not even THAT closely associated with him). In truth, I’m ashamed of myself.

But, as a pastor I listen to occasionally once said, the trick is to own your sin (my paraphrase).  Good advice, and a necessity for maintaining honesty with God. When John the Baptist told the crowds, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near,” this is what he was talking about. Part of of confession is not clamoring for excuses. It’s what separated David from Solomon. And I hope it’s what separates me as well.

Forgive me of my haughtiness, Lord. Never let me forget that it is not my political or social ideologies that determines my life, but rather my relationship to You which is of the utmost importance. Thank You for Your Grace and Kindness. Teach me to share those things with all that surround me. In the name of your precious Son, Amen.

Other Alternatives

In my last post, I wrote about the contradictions inherent in Christian Capitalism. The post served as a critique of a system that, I believe, is a hindrance to God’s Kingdom being ushered in during this present age. I don’t mean this in any kind of apocalyptic sense, but rather in the sense that Jesus has begun ushering in His Kingdom with his life, death, and resurrection; resulting in our invitation to be participants in His reign in our present circumstances.

With that being said, it was brought to my attention that in my criticism of Capitalism, I offered no solution in return. This is partly due to that fact, as I have mentioned elsewhere, that my knowledge of economics (particularly global markets) is limited. I don’t think this disqualifies me from general criticism (after all, the Pilgrims certainly did not have a suitable alternative worked out prior to boarding the Mayflower), but it does limit my ability to offer corrective responses. As someone who studies theology and literature, I know where my constructive limits are.

However, there are a few things I would like to suggest.

1) All things should be shared, equally distributing what we have to make sure that everyone that we can take care is taken care of (Acts 4:31-33). I’m not opposed to Marxism (even if he didn’t understand God like one would wish). Unfortunately, I have yet to see someone correctly implement Marx’s philosophy. Thus far, all attempts turn into a wretched disfigured form of what Marx wrote (like the USSR, the DPRK, and the PRC). Still, I don’t think the principle is what is wrong, but rather humanity’s distortion of it.

2) Debts should be forgiven regularly, and without penalty in order to avoid abuses (Leviticus 25). This isn’t to say people shouldn’t pay what they owe, but rather this is to remove the oppression that debt maintains over so much of the world. While I hold that the current credit crises is a result of greedy materialism, a practice like the one in Leviticus would stem the tide to some degree.

3) The Kingdom of God must be understood as something that effects everyone in this life, here and now (Matthew 5, Matthew 13). We behave as though we must operate under the guise of “take what we can get,” but such a mindset is never promoted by Jesus, nor His disciples. Acting in this present life to bring God’s Kingdom to fruition today is a critical part to all of this. Reforming the system will never truly work, because we don’t need reformation. We need transformation.

Perhaps these tidbits are not a cohesive structure (yet) but they still offer what I view as a better system than the one we have at present.

How do we implement such things? On a global scale, I have no idea. But operations like Spilling Hope and Advent Conspiracy I think are on the right track. On a local scale, it is up to the local Church and the members who comprise it to bring these things to reality. On an individual scale, it’s simpler. Obey Jesus’ commands to love God, our neighbors, and other Christians. Pray the Lord’s prayer, and mean it when we ask God to complete His will on earth as it is in heaven.

How does that change Capitalism? It doesn’t. At least not at first. But by transforming the individual, we can transform the local community, and then, well, the world.

It’s not going to be easy. And it may not ever be completely fulfilled. But I would rather live for Jesus, sharing Him with those who are oppressed, poor, down-trodden, and marginalized, than worry about my mortgage, or buying that HD TV I really want.

It starts with Jesus. But He invites us into His reign. So let’s get started.

Can we bridle Greed?

How is that Christians believe that we can work Capitalism to our own ends? I realize that many within the Christian community believe that Capitalism is a good thing. The idea breaks down into something like this:

1) The best kind of society is one where freedom, in particular religious freedom, is the norm.
2) Politics and economics follow the same outline in that freedom is what is best.

2) Capitalism promotes freedom through competition, therefore it is the best economic system available.

Of course, the Industrial Revolution taught us a thing or two about the abuses of freedom (as if we had not been taught this lesson throughout history already), and so began regulations. Two World Wars, and three substantial economic crises later (‘20s, ‘80s, 2000s), the regulation continues. In fact we could add to the above outline:

4) Complete freedom, particularly in Capitalism, is dangerous so we must learn to control and direct the path of our economy.

While not a detailed economic blueprint, the above sketch is how many people (not least American Christians) think about the current economic system. This video serves as a prime example:

While it would be most prudent to go into a complete explanation of how our global economy currently functions, we cannot. My own knowledge is too limited for such an endeavor (without merely resorting to parroting someone else). But, I would like to challenge Dr. Deimer’s thought all the same.

There is no way in which Capitalism can ever truly be “bridled.” The recent economic crises around the world, not to mention in Greece and Ireland specifically, should have taught us that (this video was made in 2009 so apparently not all have come to the same conclusions as I have). Competition, whether we like to admit it or not, is in contrast to the character of God. Look at Paul’s writings to the Colossians, the Galatians, or the Romans. When he describes Christian virtue, does he list competitiveness? Does he mention anything closely resembling it?

No, he does not.

Why? Because it is not in Christ’s nature to compete, and His nature is what should govern God’s children (one could argue that God the Father is jealous, but that would be remiss…after all, God does not compete for our affections).

It brings me back to Matthew, and the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ teachings on money are not vague.We either love money, or we love God. There is no in-between.

Of course, I’m stating the obvious, and no Christian, Capitalist or otherwise, would argue. In fact, they would say in my understanding of Matthew 6, I’m right.

The issue, then, comes from something else. After studying Scripture (in particular Exodus, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and the Gospels), I cannot fathom how any self-professing Christian can think that the economic system we have in the United States is anything other than a love of mammon. I understand that money is a useful tool, but that is not the limit of Capitalistic greed. Think of the housing collapse. Money, in the form of credit, was not being used as a tool. It was more a child’s plaything. We didn’t use it to end poverty, or better our communities. We used to get what we wanted. We manipulated numbers until the lifestyle we desired was achieved. There are, of course, exceptions to this (particularly people who suffered even though they did all the right things), but they are by far the tiny minority.

I don’t blame the people who took out home loans they could not afford. I don’t blame the banks who lent to people they should not have. Both of those  goats have been faulted enough.

I blame our habits, our hearts, our process of thinking. We believe that money can be tamed; that greed can be bridled. Regulation, deregulation, taxation, financial reform, and on, and on, and on. The truth is, no matter how you try to, you cannot accommodate greed. And what is Capitalism but greed put into practice?

Forgive the humor...We can do the math in way we want to, but the answer will never change. What is needed is not more of what we have, nor less of it for that matter. What we need is transformation.

 

 

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. (Romans 12:1-3, NASB)

It is only by this that things will change. And it is my continual prayer that things will indeed change. That’s what Jesus told us to do.