For the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

crownofthornsWe asked you to change the world but not to change us.

We hid from the wicked and hid our light under a basket.

We distracted ourselves avoiding sin and instead avoided you.

We handed you our sins but not our lives.

We cried out in the gate for our rights, but in our houses we rejected righteousness.

We shook our head at the wicked while we cultivated our sin.

We asked who our enemy is and not who our neighbor is.

We prayed for our sick, but not for those who hate you.

We have believed in you but have not believed you.

We learned our Bible but do not know your Word.

We prayed against them but not for them.

We shucked our crimes onto the cross but would not carry the shames of our world.

We built our churches but broke your temple.

We gained the world and lost our soul.

We wanted to be as Christ to the world but have not been as Christ before you.

We asked you for more when you called us to sacrifice.

We have built our bodies and strangled our souls.

We have broken our families.

We have dishonored our parents.

We have killed our children.

We worshiped our children.

We have raped.

We have given ourselves to others.

We have impoverished ourselves with our possessions.

We have labored in vain.

We cried “Peace! Peace!” when you cried “Repentance!”

We cried “War!” when you said, “Be still.”

We have called the sweet bitter and the bitter sweet.

We have admired and called it love.

We denied your power and called it humility.

We disobeyed you and called it grace.

We obeyed you and called it legalism.

We gnashed our teeth at you and you called us chosen.

We tried to steal your son’s glory and you called us children.

We declared you dead and you declared us righteous.

We broke Him and you called us whole.

We poured Him out and you called us full.

We failed you and you called us victors.

We robbed you and you called us heirs.

We mocked you and you called us friend.

We prostituted ourselves and you called us bride.

We sought to tip you from your throne and you called us to reign with you.

Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.

Dark Waters: Is Christianity a Mystery Religion?

719100_reachingThe academic community commonly makes the assertion that Christianity is a fusion of Judaism and ancient “mystery religions”. A mystery religion is one in which only those who are initiated into some esoteric secret knowledge are privy to the true meanings of the religion. Some scholars say that Christianity adopted its themes of resurrection and the savior-god from middle and near eastern sources. They say that Christianity originally contained hidden knowledge that only some people can approach.

There really isn’t space here to discuss the historical intricacies of this question but perhaps a general notion of the nature of the Bible from one who has read it closely will suffice. For a scholarly treatment of the question see Ronald Nash’s article here: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/cri/cri-jrnl/web/crj0169a.html and perhaps Lewis’ discussion of the corn-god in Miracles.

When Jesus taught he taught the common people. His disciples were not all educated men. When Jesus told them mysterious truths they did not understand them most of time. He did not have them undergo any secretive initiation ritual and what they heard from him was written down in the gospels for anyone to read. Perhaps the most mysterious thing Jesus did was to teach in parables rather than plainly: we know he told his inner circle that it had been given to them to understand but to others he spoke in parables. The core disciples were also allowed to see things like the transfiguration that others did not see, although it should be kept in mind that the accounts of even these things are written into the gospel narratives for all to read.

When we look at the message of the Bible we find it to be difficult in its fullness of meaning. It is cavernous and layered. It is not always as simple as we might like and even some of its stories, actual as they may be, seem to themselves be parables for cosmic things we don’t understand. It is not simple, but is it beautiful?

When we talk about the things in the Bible we don’t fully understand do we see mysteries or contradictions? Mysteries are difficult to look into as we do not have all the information. Contradictions are inherently flawed logical systems: they cannot be true since they contradict one another. The Bible is laden with paradox, most of which is in the character of God Himself. But a paradox is not a contradiction, nor is a mystery quite the same as a secret. There is a beauty to a mystery; a sense of wonder and even of fear. A paradox is a marriage; a contradiction is conjoined twins; a secret is a snob in his house on the hill.

I don’t remember who it was, perhaps C.S. Lewis, who wrote that water may be dark either because it is murky or because it is deep. Mystery religions are murky. The Bible is deep.

Privacy, please! Why Christianity Cannot be Secularized

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Today active secularism seeks to push religious practice indoors. I think of France where any public display of faith including a cross necklace or a hijab are illegal under the French law of laïcité. The notion of secularism is that religion is really better left a private affair. It may not be necessarily harmful but is an uncomfortable thing for society, the religious equivalent of going out in public in one’s underwear. The secular approach is to say that because it may be bad manners to discuss religion, being that it makes others uncomfortable, it should be legislated into a private place. “Thou shalt not discomfort thy neighbor”, so to speak.

In places like France the legislation for the privatizing of religion, upsetting as it might be to our American sensibilities, fits in the laws of France. In America, however, we have not only a constitutional right to freedom of religion but of free speech. There is (or should be, according to U.S. law) no rule against public profession and practice of faith, only the government establishment of a religious authority. The sometimes unwritten (and sometimes written) addendum to rules of secularism, not in France but in America, is that one is free to practice one’s religion as long as they do not attempt to proselytize others. But that is really not possible for the Christian. It is contradictory for us because an absolutely key component of practicing our religion is to proselytize. We believe it to be the thing Jesus commanded just before he departed. It is impossible for the Christian to have free expression and practice without proselytizing, but that creates a problem for workplaces, schools, and other institutions that desire a wholesale secular society, whether written or de facto.

I in no way advocate a quiet rollover in the face of curtailed freedom at the hands of country that forgets itself, but allow me to turn the flashlight on the Christian for a moment. Usually the talk about the First Amendment and the separation of church and state is aimed at the public sphere: government institutions to be precise. But the issue for the Christian cannot be one only of the public influence of the gospel without including its private efficacy. So many Christians in America are comfortable voting for someone who claims to be a Christian and makes sure to have cameras document their church attendance but of whom there is no evidence of a new life in Christ (in case you’re wondering I am not writing about anyone in particular). But these same voters would not consider voting for someone who claims to be of a faith different than Christianity, however devoted to family values that candidate may be. We must not call for the Christian faith to be at the forefront of our country’s public stage without concerning ourselves with what goes on behind the door.

The up-and-coming generation of young people has seen too many resignations, lost too many heroes, and ceased to believe in heroes at all, because too many of our leaders were more concerned with their public beliefs than their private beliefs. These young people have become cynical because they want to know if the person is the same person at home as they are on camera. They are asking the right question. May I humbly ask you if you use your right to freely proclaim the gospel? It does not matter if you have the right to share your faith if you do not do so anyway. Do you want to be able to proselytize or do you just want to know you still can? Those who would curtail the Christian from public practice, even proselytizing, do not allow the Christian to practice a most important command of his faith, but those Christians who will not obey the command to take the gospel to the ends of the earth need not take up issue with their country but with themselves.

Do you know what we call people who prefer a public profession and dominance of their religion without any care for the private and internal character? We call them Pharisees. It is time we searched our souls; time the church took back the kitchen table before we worry about the courts and schools, or we will have nothing to offer the country that it doesn’t have already.

 

Disclaimer: the new way to deny the power of the gospel.

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The Evangelical Church has become what we always despised in others: we are obsessed with sin and not with God. We have made the gospel safe by adding our own disclaimer.

The typical Christian today knows well an unwritten law: that one must never so much as hint at a success in his Christian life without making sure to make known how sinful and flawed he is. In doing so he dishonors not himself but his God.

There are those Christians who are always ready and waiting to talk about their favorite topic: their own self-made righteousness. This person is simply bursting as he hopes you will ask something that will give him the chance to tell you how he is God’s favorite, but since you will not ask he’ll just go ahead and tell you anyway. This person’s God is himself and there is no greater heresy for the self-righteous person than to admit to sin – for that would dishonor his god.

But even should this man come to find himself a sinner he will still learn a terrible habit which probably no one will correct in him.
The self-righteous person must not admit to sin or his god is impugned. The person who claims his righteousness comes from God must not admit to holiness or his God will be impugned, for he feels that he robs God of glory if he does so.Ask a Christian who has discovered he is a sinner to talk about his failures and he is in his element, you have him on a topic at which he is particularly adept. But ask him about his successes and everything within him twists and turns trying to return to the territory he feels is not so heretical: a discussion of his sin.

What both do not know is that their god is themselves and their lord is sin.

Mewling, fevered, downcast Christians who cannot look God in the eye without pausing to scourge themselves are gravely mistaken if they think they are giving glory to God.

It is the more grounded Christian who knows God does not play favorites or give gold stars for good behavior. But the one who refuses to admit freely that God is changing his life denies the power of the gospel. When we are able to talk about our lives with Jesus Christ only in terms of our sin we are saying that there is no life in Him. We are saying that in the end, this gospel doesn’t really work and we are back to being nice people. Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” We might glorify God a little when we know him to be better than we are. We glorify him much more when we are like him.

Exclusive: should Christians claim to have the only way?

All rights reserved by dkhlucyThere is a great outcry against the claims of Christianity to be the one right way and that Jesus Christ is the one true God. How could one religion have the arrogance to say that it is the only right way and that it has a monopoly on truth?

Something that must be understood is that truth must be exclusive. If it doesn’t claim to exclude falsehoods it cannot claim to be true. So all statements of truth are exclusive statements. Because of this each religion is making a claim to exclusive truth. Some are more willing to try to include (or really to co-opt)  others but even they do so within the parameters of what they say is true. But no belief system can be a belief if it’s designed to not be believed. That would be a bit silly.

I think one would also find it rather uncomfortable. Nobody wants to live in a land without borders. You see, if Jesus might be admired but is not making claims at the expense of other claims then we cannot even bother to trust him. If we say that there must be another “way” we automatically beg the question: another way to what, exactly? At that point we cannot even say what the goal is anymore. That is because goals that are not exclusive will never be reached. And what about Christ’s claim of love? Would we prefer a non-exclusive love? Would we like it better if Jesus loved not only goodness but also evil? Or that he makes promises we can trust but they are not exclusive? You cannot be satisfied by a belief with which you are merely shacking up.

But the offer of Christ is not exclusive. The gospel is not only for those of the right ethnicity or the right gender. It is not for the healthy and strong or the intelligent or wealthy. You do not have to be good enough for Christ, if anything you might have to be bad enough.

In our world we have “exclusive” clubs making the word synonymous with luxury and elitism. Places are said to be better because of the people they keep out: those who not good enough. The kingdom of heaven could understandably make the same claim. In fact, no institution of man really has the right to call itself great because it keeps out other men. Only the realm of God in all its holiness can do something like that. But God did not choose that way. He made a place that was magnificent not because of whom it kept out but because of who gets to come in.

Of course not all are accepted and this is one of the aspects of the kingdom which many are offended by. But it does not exclude because of who you are; it excludes those who cling to who they are… shall we say “exclusively”.

The truth of Christ is exclusive; the offer of Christ is not.

Book Review: Lost in Transition: the dark side of emerging adulthood

lost in transition 2Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: the dark side of emerging adulthood (Oxford, 2011 $27.95) is a refreshingly well-researched take on the current culture of young adults, using real interviews to expose rather than sloppy conjecture to complain.

Smith, a sociology professor at Notre Dame, and his co-authors interviewed hundreds of people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three and recorded many of their answers to questions on five topics: morality, consumerism, intoxication, sexuality, and civic and political involvement.

For the person who works with young adults or who has one that they care about this book is an excellent way to better understand their world. It deftly sifts through cultural assumptions about “kids these days” and exposes the cultural realities about which we thought we new. For anyone who likes to attach hard statistics to what are usually foggy general notions this is the right book.

In terms of the angle of the writing the book pushes toward the thesis that there is a set of alarming trends among what it dubs “emerging adults”. In each category of interview questions it reveals a lack of direction in thought and standards and penetrates into the often self-centered motives behind the lives of emerging adults.

From a philosophical perspective the first chapter alone is worth buying the book for. This is the only non-religious academic book I have found that pushes the conversation of morality back to the cliff of what the basis for morality is in the first place. The answers and questions illustrate with no uncertainty the lack of any coherent response by young adults and the objective need for an objective answer. The researchers have my gratitude for forcing such an important question.

It is not clear what the particular perspective of the authors is. In proper academic form they keep their personal opinions quiet, but it is clear that they are hinting toward a the need for some brand of coherent moral framework. If the book is written by Christian academics then it is an example of a sort of book almost never seen: a solidly academic work with objective research which puts the current moral culture in a skillful checkmate without resorting to knocking all the pieces off the board.  A sociological book based on actual interviews (and the Oxford name on the spine doesn’t hurt) is a valuable tool to have in order to site in a conversation of the basis for and cultural perceptions of morality that can hold the intellectual respect of secular readers. This is the sort of book I wish more Christians were trained and ready to write.

I recommend Lost in Transition to all in college ministry or who work with or simply love a college-age person.

Still

It is the enduring buzzword of the revolutionary of all stripes and it connotes such a multitude of individual meanings that it is batted about without ever being examined. Struggle: the clarion call of all who would seek to overthrow the perceived overlords in their lives and rise to their own independence.

The word “struggle” is ubiquitous in revolutionary literature. Voltaire said, “My life is a struggle.” Engels wrote that “[T]he whole history of mankind [...] has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes [...].” Mao Tse-Tung wrote: “Once all struggle is grasped, miracles are possible.” Hitler entitled his book Mein Kamp (“My Struggle”). And what does jihad mean but “struggle”?

What is the implication of the use of this word in social rhetoric? Just this: that if I try hard enough I can overcome the power over me with my own power or with the collective power of those who agree with me. I can do it. We can do it.

There is something very telling in the depictions of people in socialist propaganda posters. They are always very healthy, strong, intelligent. The farmer with his ramrod posture and sinewy forearms stands in front of a tractor or field of golden wheat. The thinker stands next to the soldier, both robust and enthusiastic. The only people who do not appear as glowing specimens of humanity are the actual leaders. Lenin looks like an old man. Stalin can’t lose the double chin. Mao is overweight. Hitler looks a bit too puny. But these are when photographs are used. When an artist drew the men they looked much more dashing and strong. The depiction of Hitler as a knight comes to mind. The years seem to fall away from a more spritely Lenin. Mao never improved much either way. The strength of the people is highlighted but the inconvenient reality remains: people are still just people. The message that our struggle is enough because we are strong enough does not reflect the reality of who we are.

The Bible holds a quite different message. At the impossible prospect of escaping the pharaoh’s chariots at the Red Sea Moses told the people: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” In Samuel’s last address to the Israelites he said, “Now therefore stand still and see this great thing that the Lord will do before your eyes.” Before a great battle the prophet Jahaziel told the king, “You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.” In Psalm 46:10 the sons of Korah wrote, “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth!”

“Stand firm”. “Stand still”. “Stand firm”. “Be still”. What the Bible offers is a mighty God, sufficiently powerful to overcome on your behalf. Scripture does not have to alter a person’s image in order to hide the weakness of reality behind the power of the paintbrush. It is honest about the weakness of man and like the father to whom the little child says, “I can do it myself!” is never swayed by vain professions of strength.

When the Jews hailed Jesus as the one who would complete their struggle over their political oppressors they forgot that he had said that the truth shall set them free. When they nailed him to the cross with that sign above his head they forgot that he told them that the one who sins is a slave to sin. When they buried him in the grave the disciples feared both Rome and the Jews under Rome. But when he rose they knew the Son had made them free indeed.

A Strange Habit

 

I have developed a strange habit over the years. You might say that I hadn’t really developed it like any other habit which grows over time. This habit is really not so much like washing one’s hands or biting one’s lip as it is an instinct, although it is curious for an instinct just the same.

 

What I do is this: whenever the lights go out suddenly or I come into a place where I really can’t see much of anything at all because of the darkness I instinctively close my eyes. I have no idea when or how this odd habit began and definitely no guess as to why. I do not know if it is something other people do as well or if I am the only one. But for whatever reason, I close my eyes when they aren’t being any use.

 

Now, of course our habits and reflexes are often not rational and I stand no chance of seeing any better if my eyes are closed. As dark as my surroundings may be I certainly stand a better chance of seeing if my eyes area open. If they are closed they will miss out on the use of even what scant light might still be there and won’t be ready when the light does come on. At the moment I need my eyes most they are shut.

 

I have noticed, however, a similarly curious habit of the soul that makes little more sense than the silly thing I find my eyes doing in darkness.

 

People, even of the thoroughgoing Christian sort, often ask how faith can stand in times of trouble. They look out the window at a world gone awry and wonder how they might rely on God. The look inside and ask how they can still hold onto God when all else tears at their grip on Him. How, in short, can they have faith when all looks bleak and frail?

 

These poor souls are closing their eyes when the lights go out. Asking how we can have faith when all seems dire is like asking how we can bother with our parachute when we are falling. If further analogy is needed please picture a sailor panicking and jumping ship in a storm.

 

I had a conversation with a young lady who was wondering how close God is when we are in pain. No small question and one that the Biblical writers asked as well. But for the believer God as closer to us than we are ourselves for He makes His home within us. He is not afar off but is closer than here.

 

Do not close your eyes in the dark. Hold to the one who is here, no matter what dark fear is snarling around out there. That, friend, is faith.

 

It Takes One to Know One

It is usually rather alarming for someone to find that they are doubting the very things that they have held most dear. It is possibly more alarming for people whose loved ones are doubting their faith.

Many Christians react to someone, especially a close loved one, doubting their faith with derision. They want to throw hard and fast answers and get the wayward soul back to a comfortable place. Often we do not think that good Christians ever deal with doubts about their faith, after all – we certainly don’t, do we?

But to this hypothetical dictator of ideas I would ask a question: do you really never doubt your faith? Do you never doubt the God you say you trust implicitly?

Faith in God is essentially a matter of trust. Dale Fincher writes, “Faith has less to do with figuring out if something is true and more to do with trust as we enter relationships.” When we fail to trust God we are not so far from the person doubting whether or not God is who He is said to be.

By way of example, we might take the repeated command to fear not. The implication is that we ought to trust in God for all things. Do you ever fear? Do you ever worry about your finances? Do you ever worry about the fate of the doubter in your life?

Hebrews 11:6 says: “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” The typical doubter often doubts the first part: that God exists. But the one who believes in God and even claims to faithfully follow Him yet lives out his or her doubts about His goodness and reliability is in no place to judge the classic doubter. Jude 22 tells us: “Have mercy on those who doubt.” After all, don’t we want the same mercy from God when our actions say He may not be trustworthy?

Book Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

In a world littered with the bodies of work of men and women deigning to speak for the Almighty the weary listener longs for the refreshment of a believer who is really something new in Christ. Where are these New Men, the ones who are hollowed out inside and filled not with vacuity but with Someone wonderful? We need not the verbose but the profound – those who live and breathe a fresher air than most and speak from experience. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was such a man.

Upon first introduction I was unsure about him. Perhaps as theologian his belief would cause me an allergic reaction. Perhaps as a writer his biography would fail to reflect the resounding words he wrote. And yet, as with scripture, the greatest proclamation of truth comes not so much for a life as from a life. Bonhoeffer’s thought was not just the driving force of his life but his life drove his thought.

Eric Metaxas’s 2010 book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy traces Bonhoeffer’s life from his recent ancestors until his funeral in 1945. This is Metaxas’s second biography, following one of William Wilberforce in 2007. The work is well-researched yet doesn’t bog the reader down in details. Metaxas does not take the time to describe anyone’s personality (except Bonhoeffer’s) and yet as a narrative the book flows along nicely with tributary chapters on the historical context of events and the lives of the actors involved. The final chapter makes Bonhoeffer feel quietly distant from the reader and yet one feels almost in the midst of his last days of life. Metaxas gives the impression that we have gotten to know this great man and yet wish we had really met him as we mourn and admire his death.

The book cannot be called unbiased. Of course it might be difficult to write an unbiased work which deals so closely with the Nazi Reich but it is very clear that Metaxas is a conservative Christian writing about a personal hero. If you are looking for a highly academic historical and clinical study of a third-party theology in the midst of a third-party political system this is not the book for that (for example, Metaxas often characterizes the Nazi leadership as various animals such as shoats). But it is a heartfelt and honest portrait of Bonhoeffer by someone who can understand what he is seeing. If you want to learn to appreciate a painter you may want to talk to a painter of the same school since he knows what he is looking at.

I encourage you to find a copy of this book and get to know the man who knew what it was to follow Christ.