In Word and Deed: What the Elderly Taught Me About Ministry

Leading a Bible study at a nursing home is not a sexy ministry. No one gives you great acclaim  for it. No one recognizes your name because of “that thing you do.” Actually, the people you minister to often don’t remember your name at all.

That is especially true of Ed. He joined our Bible study a couple of months ago after moving into the home. He is recovering from major brain surgery from cancer, and he rarely remembers where he is, much less my name. Ruth faithfully comes by his room every Wednesday to remind him of the Bible study, and then walks him back.

Clara can barely hear. As we sit around the table, she sits right beside me, often getting uncomfortably close in order to hear the words  I feel like I am yelling to the other 10 or so people in the room.

Warren can barely stay awake. He’s a gruff man and has few words. He’ll awake from his afternoon nap (which happens to take place when I am teaching) to interject a comment or a “let’s move along.” Evellyn is his girlfriend, and she often apologizes for Warren’s time preference for his slumber.

When I took over the Bible study with these wonderful people, my motives were less than perfect. At Covenant, we need something called Field Education Hours— a dreaded 300 hours of on-site ministry experience on top of school and work and everything that seminary requires. I didn’t feel particularly called to serve the elderly—then again, I had never done it. My first day on “the job” was less than encouraging. I really had no idea what I was doing, and I thought the naps, the lack of response, and the general ambivalence was proof of it. Week after week, I tried to make things interesting to keep them more engaged. Yet, week after week, they never remembered what we had talked about before.

I was going to get them to learn. I was in seminary, after all. I study under some of the greatest biblical and theological scholars around. If I can’t get them to learn, then what am I doing? Do they even want to learn?

Since I started the Bible study about a year ago, we have studied Genesis, Exodus, John, and Acts. And week after week I would leave thinking, “They got it this time,” and I would come back thinking, “No, maybe they didn’t.” It felt like I was spinning my proverbial wheels. “Maybe this is proof that I shouldn’t minister to the elderly,” I thought to myself. “Whatever I’m doing, they just aren’t getting it.”

It was me who wasn’t getting it.

Today, as I was driving to the Bible study (a solid 25 minutes from campus) I was going over and over in my head how I could finish the book of Acts with a bang. My efforts yielded little in the realm of innovation. So I walked through the front doors and checked in with Mary at the front desk. I said my usual “how are you?” and received the usual “well, I’m old.” And I gave my usual laugh and “good to see you” and walked up the stairs.

When I got to the study, the room was packed. I had a strange feeling that something was going on that I knew nothing about—everyone was staring and smiling. So I walked in and sat down. As I was about to ask for prayer requests, Evellyn got up from her seat and walked towards me. She had a white envelope in her hand. She leaned down next to me and said, “We took up a love offering for you. We wanted to help you with your gas money. We love having you here with us. Thank you for taking the time to be with us.”

We love having you here with us.

Thank you for being with us.

They didn’t thank me for all they had learned. They didn’t thank me for how smart I was. I had missed the point. I was so concerned about getting them to learn, even though it was they who were patiently enduring the efforts of an inexperienced seminarian. Not only that, but I was arrogant enough to think  that in their 70’s, 80’s, and even 90’s that they couldn’t possibly know as much about the Bible as I did. But, that wasn’t even the point. They thanked me for something that I was not even intentionally doing. After 1 year and 4 books of the Bible, what communicated the gospel was not my teaching, but that I was there with them.

Presence—one of the things that set Jesus apart from the other teachers of the law. He moved towards people, even people that were  viewed as unproductive members of society. And of course he taught them, but he loved and was present with them first. Jesus’s incarnation was the very heart of this reality. Leaving his throne, he moved into a broken world, taking on our own weakness. God came to be with us—and that’s where he always wanted to be.

God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. And even after the Fall, he still made provision so that he could dwell with us. He gave them instructions to build the Tabernacle and said

I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. (Ex 29:45)

After centuries of prophecies about the Messiah who would come to his people, we read that

the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:14)

Even after Jesus ascended into heaven, God’s desire to dwell with his people was unwavering. Jesus told his disciples,

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (Jn 14:15-17)

And yet, even this is not the final word. In the last book of the Bible, in the last chapter, John records,

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Rev 21:3)

If it is the desire of God to be with his people, why do we often neglect the importance of being with his people? Pope Francis once said that the pastor should be so close to the flock that he comes back “smelling like the sheep.”

These wonderful people at the nursing home reminded me of this reality. By simply being there with them, they experienced the gospel of Christ. I pray that I and we do not neglect this very important part of ministry.

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Cheers to “Jack”: How C.S. Lewis showed me Jesus

I have always thought of myself as a citizen of Narnia.

One could say that I was a child with an overactive imagination, and I loved to read. The combination of these two realities made me a prime candidate to be drawn into the world of Narnia. C.S. Lewis had a marvelous way of creating lands,characters, ideas and dreams by being exceptionally clear and wonderfully indirect. His unique quality of world-making invited the reader to  find their  place in this world in a very natural, organic way. Like any new place one might travel, you learn how to live and act in that place mainly by being there,  and not necessarily by being told what to do. This is the world created by Lewis- one where you were invited to come in and be. 

Clearly, all of this is retrospective. As a young imaginative boy  I was not thinking in terms of literary composition and character development. All I knew is that Narnia and its citizens made me feel something I had never felt before. I would daydream about what it would be like to really be there. I found myself envious of Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan- to chat with Mr. Beaver, befriend Mr. Tumnus, and, most of all, to battle side-by-side with King Aslan. There was something both terrifying and comforting when Aslan’s name would appear on the page. His presence was not something to be trifled with, and yet in every moment of danger I found myself shouting  “Where’s Aslan!” And when the final battle was won, I found myself at a loss. Is this the end? Yes, the White Witch is dead… but Aslan is too great to go away forever- the story is too wonderful!  And as I thought the story was ending, I was wonderfully corrected:

“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Yet sadly, my childhood passions fell away. That sense of wonder and excitement all but seemed to vanish in my teen years. And, of course, Jack would have found this quite shameful. I found myself in my late teens and early adulthood in a place of deep skepticism. Nothing in this world seemed to make sense and there were no battles that seemed worth fighting. The pain and suffering surrounding me seemed to be too much, and if there was a god he surely wasn’t good (or at least as good as I thought he should be!). Then, I was given two books by a friend- The Problem of Pain and Surprised by Joy. The name on the bottom of them struck a chord deep in my heart- C.S. Lewis. “I’m not sure how a fantasy novelist is going to help me in my existential crisis,” I though to myself. But the depression of a meaningless life was closing in, so I thought, “what the hell.”

As I read through the pages, I was baffled. This was no Narnia, but the world he presented was just as marvelous as the one Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy explored. The God he presented was not the god I had contrived, yet, he was eerily familiar. Then I realized- I know this God. It’s Aslan! In my moment of danger, that’s who I really desired- I wanted Aslan. It was both terrifying and comforting. It was not Aslan, but Jesus, and I had longed for him even before I knew him.

So there I sat, baffled by the words in front of me. Jack had struggled with the same things I had- yet, he found comfort and solace in a king named Jesus. Yes, there was pain in this world, but that pain could only be hated if there was one who ruled who was infinitely good. What was true in Narnia was true here on earth- rather, what is true on earth was true in Narnia. This was the beginning of my journey and my great adventure. C.S. Lewis was showing me the way to Jesus long before I knew who Jesus truly was. And when I came to know him, I realized that my heart had been longing for him since my childhood. Jesus is a great lion- the Lion of Judah. His presence is not to be trifled with, but it is comforting to be with him.  He is not safe, but he is good. Aslan has won the war.

I am a citizen of Narnia. I am a son of the King. Thank you, Saint Jack, for being a spiritual father for me.

Clive Staples Lewis is survived by innumerable spiritual children, whom he has helped lead to Christ, rear in the faith, and challenge for a life of continual discipleship.

“For Narnia!”

Grace for Miley

Since the VMA’s, my Facebook newsfeed has exploded with reactions to Miley Cyrus’s performance. Using words like “perverse,” “degrading,” “whore,” and other such descriptive terminology, Christians have lashed out against former Hannah Montana child superstar with the iron fist of judgement and self-righteousness. Blog posts have been written, articles have been published, and the general moral  opinion amongst Christians is one of disgust. I read comments stating how offended they were, how they would have never done something like that, and that they are certainly never going to let their child end up like this. In fact, this sentiment has been passed around through a recent blog post entitled “Dear Daughter, let Miley Cyrus be a lesson to you.”  The post addresses Miley simply as someone who desires sexual attention, who has never been disciplined, and who has always been told that she is awesome (read: she was never taught how to be a good girl). Miley has been reduced to a list of her sins, and nothing more. Thus, the writer justifies her parental tactics (which may or may not be just fine, I don’t know her personally) because they will ensure that her daughter will never end up like Miley. She goes so far as to state:

Dear daughter, I am going to fight or die trying to keep you from becoming like the Miley Cyruses of the world.

You can thank me later.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. This mother’s sentiment is sincere and proper. She desires for her daughter to respect herself, to not feel as if she must reach celebrity status to be worthwhile, and that she does not need men complimenting her body in order to be beautiful. This is exactly right.

Here’s the issue (and not just with this particular blogger, but Christians in general): are we so naive to think that Miley’s performance was simply due to the fact that she doesn’t know how to behave? Do we really think that by simply putting Miley on the moral chopping block that the youth of our nation will suddenly lose any desire to do the same? Do we honestly think that we are immune to act the same way simply because we believe our morals are in order?

First, Miley Cyrus is a human being, formed in the image of God in her mother’s womb. God knows her, he knit her together fearfully and wonderfully. He longs for her, sends his grace to her, and has gifted her in wonderful ways. This gives Miley value and worth– worth that our judgement and condemnation cannot take away. It is much easier for us to begin by pointing out another person’s flaws. As soon as we can find a sin that someone else struggles with that we ourselves don’t, we begin to build a staircase of self-righteousness that we might tower over them.

We say things like, “Oh, I don’t do that, and never would.” How many times have we told ourselves this about something someone else does? Or we say, “I promise I will never do that again,” to something we do over and over again. Do you see the connection here? If we are unable to resist the things that we view as “lesser sins,” what makes us think that if we were in the same situation as Miley that we would not do the same?

Scripture is clear. All human hearts apart from the grace of God would do the same, and much worse. Our first response to things like this is usually, “Her parents should have/have not done x, y, and z.” “If only she had done this or that she would have learned what it means to be a proper young lady.” We create a list of rules and regulations which tell us how not to be. This is why you hear parents say “Don’t be like Miley.” Don’t twerk. Don’t be a celebrity. Don’t don’t don’t.

We tell our youth what to turn away from, but, then what? If we are unable on our own to resist our own struggles, what makes us think that by simply putting an example of what not to be in front of them with the threat that the parent “will run up and twerk so you will see how ridiculous twerking looks” will somehow give our youth the ability to do otherwise?

The answer is not law, but grace. The answer is not about our behavior, but the obedience of another.  We don’t need any help from Miley Cyrus to act the same way and desire the same things. We are good enough at sinning on our own.  What we need is a savior, not a self-righteous measuring stick. Finding another’s sin more appalling than our own is the surest way to guarantee that you are indeed exactly the same as or worse  than the person  you are condemning. As Jesus tells us in Luke 18:10-14,

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Here’s the point: we don’t need to just be pointed away from bad behavior. We don’t need examples of “what not to be” placed in front of us.  When we do this, we are saying, “Sin is out THERE! Don’t let it sneak in!” The truth is, I am Miley Cyrus, and so are you. When we point the finger of condemnation at her sin, we must at the same time condemn ourselves for our own sin. This is why Jesus says,

For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. (Matt 7:2)

This is the nature of grace: that, through Christ’s obedience, he was made perfect to be our substitute, that he might bear the wrath of God in our place. When we realize that in our universal wretchedness Christ died that we might not be condemned, how then can we turn around and condemn others? If our sin sent the God-man Christ to die a sinner’s death, how then can we stand in superiority to any other person? The grace of God alone is the only sufficient means by which hearts are changed, not just to obedience, but to humility and love for sinners. In our judgement, we do two things: 1) we believe that we are incapable of the same sin or worse, and 2) we treat Miley as if she is outside of the reach of grace. Neither of these things are true. Grace says “it’s not about  what you do, it’s about what has already been done.” This is a claim we like to be true ourselves, but not for others.

So, to the parents out there who feel they have failed because their children aren’t living up to perfect behavioral standards: Don’t just point them away from certain behaviors, but point your child to the grace of God, who loves them, pursues them, and will gladly except them as his own. 

To those who hear the condemnation of Christians and feel marginalized from the Church: Take heart. The grace of God is immense enough to cover all your sin, just as it has covered theirs. You are not alone in your struggles.

And to the mother of the blog mentioned above: You don’t have to die for your daughter to save her from becoming like Miley Cyrus. Christ already died to save her from herself.

“Don’t Hear What I’m Not Saying”: The Importance of Conversational Hermeneutics

In my studies at Covenant Seminary, one thing is taught repeatedly: Let the author speak for himself. In good hermeneutical fashion, our interpretation of a Biblical text is to be informed by the author’s context, intent, and occasion. The author, writing at a particular time, to a particular audience, and for a particular purpose is the authority in the concept or point of that text. Our understanding of that text, then, is driven by what the author’s concern for the text was (as inspired by the Holy Spirit, of course). This is the difference between exegesis (reading out of the text what is being communicated by the author), and eisegesis (reading one’s own presuppositions, agendas, and/or biases into the text). We can only properly apply said text if we understand what the authorial intent was. It is a failure to read or understand the text properly if we read our own biases and contexts into the text first, forcing it to fit into our own agendas. This (in a very incomplete nutshell) is the essence of proper understanding of what the author is seeking to communicate.

Yet, I found that these concepts are often neglected and even ignored in our day to day interactions. Even good pastors, theologians, and seminary students fall prey to “agenda intrusion” in conversation with others. Of course, this is not only true in the realm of theology, but also politics, culture, or personal interest. Just take a moment to explore the blog world and read the comments section. How many of the comments actually reflect what the author meant (or even said!)? Listen to a media coverage of some event, speech, or meeting. Are the “snap-shot” quotes they play or mention actually reflective of the main point? This is so common, so systemic, that it happens even in our daily conversations. A phrase that I hear more and more is “Don’t hear what I’m not saying.” Why? Because we are in a cultural environment where we have to qualify everything we say–where we believe that what we understand someone to be saying is more important than what they may actually be saying. (Confession: I’m Guilty).  Here are some common ways this is played out:

1) What is not said is interpreted as being against it or not caring about it.

2) Mentioning something is taken as advocating it.

3) An argument is taken in its most extreme fashion, instead of a particular instance which it is being directed.

4) Some point is taken to apply to a completely separate and unrelated circumstance for which it was not intended.

5) The point of an argument is interpreted falsely by the listener, and that false interpretation is what drives the rest of their rebuttal.

6) One continues to move away from the main point of concern to a point of personal concern in order to undercut the main point, thus failing to respect the main intent.

7) One compares an argument to an unrelated circumstance, drawing weak parallels between them in order to prove it wrong.

This is but a sampling of the many ways a bad conversational hermeneutic can hinder appropriate and respectful conversation. Just as we at Covenant are trained to be careful readers, we all too should seek to be careful listeners. Without beginning first with a respect for the other, and seeking to understand  their perspective and intent, the conversation will end with frustration, conflict, and misunderstanding. How can we seek to avoid this?

1) Don’t interrupt: let them finish what they are saying. Your concern might be answered.

2) If it is a written text, read the whole thing and in light of everything else they’ve said.

3) Ask clarifying questions: “Do you mean to say…?” “What do you mean by…?” “Can you help me understand…?” This both affirms the other person’s value, and the value of their perspective, and will allow a healthy dialogue to continue.

4) Don’t “attack.” Aggressive language begets an aggressive response. Don’t use demeaning terminology, or compare what they are saying to some demeaning circumstance. This will more than likely end a conversation and lead to emotional rants on both sides.

5) Seek to understand the other’s context. Ask, “Why do you think that?” “What lead you to this conclusion?” “Have you thought about it this way?” “Why do you not find this argument compelling?” Understanding where they are coming from will help understand the conclusions they are drawing.

6) Don’t take their arguments to the extreme. Don’t say things like, “well you must hate all x, y, and z.” Or, “Well, then you don’t care about things like this at all.” This is negative argumentation, and more often than not their concern is not addressing these extreme degrees.

7) Don’t change the topic. This includes changing the subject matter completely, comparing the argument to something unrelated, or using unrelated events to argue against their position, or for your own.

8) Disagree with respect. It is good to know going into a conversation where you disagree with someone that you probably will not come out of that conversation having changed someone’s mind. That’s OK. This also means that you don’t have to have the last word. Be willing to keep the conversation open. This is difficult, as we live in a culture where we need things to come to a conclusion (and immediately, if possible). Remember: relationships are more important than being right. You will have more influence in a person’s life by showing love and respect to them, even when you disagree with them. We must “earn the right to be heard” through relational capital if we wish for them to come to a different conclusion.

9) Last, and most difficult: Be OK with being wrong. No one wants to be wrong, but, sometimes we are. This does not mean that in every disagreement there is a right and wrong conclusion. Sometimes two people can hold two different, yet equally valid, opinions. However, some of the most powerful words you can speak to someone is “I was wrong.” This, I have found, actually leads others to respect your beliefs and opinions more than arguing endlessly about something which is incorrect.

If we remember that people should come before our position, we will find a greater fruitfulness in our relations and the conversations which ensue. We should seek first a full understanding of where the other person is coming from before we speak in disagreement, setting aside our own agendas, and being humble and gentle in our response. This is not just good theological practice, it’s good Christian living.

Here I Raise My Ebenezer: A Year (or so) in Review

1 Sam 7:12- “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.”

God had a pattern with the Israelites of setting up “stones of remembrance” after God had preserved or provided for his people in some amazing way. Needless to say, I need more rocks…

Let’s just say my time in seminary has been an emotional and spiritual roller coaster (and, we can throw in physical too if you count lack of sleep). Yet, despite the close calls and the near “calling it quits”, God has persistently and graciously provided every step of the way…

I preached a sermon yesterday on Ex. 17:1-7, where God provides for the people despite their rebellious, sinful, unbelieving spirits (if you are wondering if I belong in that category, the answer is a strong affirmative).

As I preached this passage, I shared briefly of all the ways God has provided for me despite my unbelief, distrust, and frustration (we aren’t so unlike those Israelites after all…)

All that to say, the grace of God has been on abundant display. And here’s the kicker… I didn’t do anything, nothing, to merit it. Actually, it was quite the opposite. I was the one who was unfaithful. I was the one who didn’t trust. I was the one turning to every other source but God for support and stability. Yet… and that’s a big “yet”, God still provided. Here’s a brief overview of the problem/provision scenarios that have played out. I have intentionally left out the names of the men and women God used to provide, either because they remained anonymous, and because they may wish to remain anonymous:

Problem:Fall 2011(a week before moving to St. Louis) I still did not have a place to live or money for tuition.
Provision: God provided a free place for me to live. The day before I was moving, God provided tuition money.

Problem: Winter 2011, near the end of the semester, I realize that I do not have enough money for the next semester.
Provision: I receive a phone call from someone who felt like God was leading them to support me. They paid for the remainder of my tuition for the spring semester.

Problem: End of spring semester during finals week, I found out that I was losing my job, my housing, and, again, I didn’t have enough money for the next semester.
Provision: As I am packing my car to move home (literally, getting ready to move home) God provided tuition and a new place to live. A week later, God provided me with a job.

Problem: At the beginning of this semester, my car was broken into, and they stole my books, laptop, school work, ipod, kindle, etc etc etc. And, insurance wouldn’t cover it.
Provision: Through several members of my family, I was able to replace the essential items that I lost so that I could continue my school work. My professors also excused my “stolen assignments” (that excuse only works once) or provided me additional time to complete them.

Problem: About a week after my car was broken into, it was vandalized, knocking off my side view mirror and cracking my windshield.
Provision: Someone anonymously donated enough money into my student account to cover my deductible.

Now, again, here’s what I want you to remember. I was not placing myself in a position of humble dependence on God. I was angry, prideful, and suffered from a severe case of entitlement. “God, I thought this was your plan. I’m doing everything I feel like you are telling me to! Why are you allowing this to happen?” Yep, I am a whiny little self-righteous jerk.

But, finally, here’s what I discovered. We often view the economy of God in terms of equal exchange of goods and services. If I have enough faith and keep all the rules, that will build up enough credit to receive God’s grace and mercy. And this thought process is from the pits of hell. We, although we may doctrinally disagree with this, so often live this way. So, here’s what I’ve realized. God does not require our obedience or faith in order for him to be able to show us grace, mercy, provision, goodness, etc. Rather, he provides these things for us SO THAT we will have faith and obey. You see, in Romans 2:4 Paul asks us, “… do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Notice the order here. The riches of his kindness LEAD us to repentance, which means they must come before our obedience or faith or repentance.

So, here I raise my Ebenezer, because it is by his grace,goodness, forbearance, and patience I’ve come this far. And, if anyone has any spare stones laying around, I could use a few more.

A Prayer for Unity

Philippians 2:1-11

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

God our Father, King, Ruler, Humble Servant and Savior:

How often we forget that we are but creatures called to live as your faithful covenant children. In our actions towards our brothers and sisters we view ourselves as though we have been highly exalted and are enthroned in heaven. How arrogant and prideful we are! We live as rulers of our own kingdom, and as such we view our own beliefs, actions, ideologies, and theologies as supreme and authoritative. Yet, because these things come from us, they are prone to error. Therefore, we degrade our brothers and sisters and view them lower than ourselves even though they too profess Christ as their Savior . We constantly affirm our own position of holiness while at the same time sinning towards the children of God by viewing ourselves as more significant in the Kingdom. Our pursuits of holiness are in fact done, on most occasions, from pride and selfishness. Because of this self-worship, those who disagree with us become an enemy to our causes instead of a partner in the Kingdom.

Yet, Lord, you have called us to be of one mind and to live in unity. We falsely believe that this means a universal consistency of our thoughts and deeds- but this is not what you have said. The “same mind” that we are to have in Christ Jesus is because of what he has accomplished and completed. We have nothing to add, but are called to participate in what has already been won. Therefore, because he humbled himself to the point of death through obedience (even though He was God!) we should not fear if someone disagrees with us. Rather, we can view the other person more highly than we view ourselves, taking the position of a humble servant as Christ did in the most ultimate sense. Our unity is in the Spirit, and the ultimate authority lies in Christ, at whose name every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord- not us. Help us to remember that if Christ (who is God) humbled himself to death on a cross on behalf of a rebellious people, that we have no excuse not to do the same. And even more, because Christ is the one highly exalted, we should remain humbled, knowing that the world will confess Him as Lord- not us. May we be ever cautious of viewing ourselves too highly, and may we instead, because of the unity we have in Christ, view others more highly than we do ourselves. And this we do not for our glory, but for Your namesake. Bring unity to your people, King Jesus. Humble us before Your throne. Amen

Culture and Missions: Culture as “People Art”

This post is in response to a topic that was suggested to me. This suggestion was about  cultural influences and their effect on the church and missions. The idea of culture and missions is a vital discussion in both how we view and approach the world. Please feel free to post your thoughts or questions!

The concept of Culture has been horribly disfigured by the Church. You often hear of Christians “battling” against the World and see them huddling inside their churches in order to protect themselves from this sin that is “out there”. But rather than reversing the effects of sin in the world, a wall has been built between the believer and non-believer and between the “sacred” and “secular”. We have elevated our ethno-centristic love for American ways of life to a level of Biblical authority and degrade the traditions and histories of other people groups. We have also divided these cultural norms within the “American Judeo-Christian” way of life. We have created an enemy that is flesh and blood when Scripture tells us that our enemy is principalities of darkness. Our battle is not against people, or culture, or music, or movies, or native languages; our battle is against the Evil One, Satan. The only way to counter evil is not to avoid it, but to show the transforming and redeeming power of our Savior and the ultimate Savior of the World, Jesus Christ. That means that culture should not be rejected and labeled as “evil”.  We call “things” evil when we fail to recognize that sin is in the hearts of all people and not in the things of the world. A professor of mine once told me that “Christians are too often known for pulling weeds instead of planting flowers.” We are known for what we are against, and much less so for what we are for. As Christians we are for Christ and against Satan, the great deceiver and liar who only seeks to destroy. The reason we cannot reject Culture is because the rejection of Culture is the rejection people: Culture is “People Art”.

I know that calling Culture “People Art” sounds strange, but I think its the best way to portray its importance. God, the initial creator of all things, called all that he had created “good”. He then created man and called us “very good”. From that point forward we were called to be creators of good things which show the glory of God to the World. That means the things all cultures create from music, to art, to movies, to traditions are not inherently evil. As Christians these things  should be done with excellence, but sadly this is not the case. Culture is the accumulation of the things that people create, and these people are all images bearers of their Creator. Therefore, just as oil is the medium for an oil painting, and film is the medium for movies, so too are people the medium for Culture. Thus, Culture is “People Art”. Now, because we are sinners, the things of this world can be used in evil ways. However, we must make a distinction between something being used in an evil way and some “thing” being evil in and of itself. Music in and of itself is not evil, but can be used in an evil way. Traditions and languages are not evil, but they too can be used in opposition to the Will of God. Yet just because we see sin in something does not mean we are to abandon it. If this were the way Christ approached the world, then we would all be hopeless creatures- zombies in our sin- walking death. Our job, when it comes to culture, is to bring Christ to it, to show Him in all his beauty, and to allow his Spirit to transform the World.

False Kingdoms, False Truths, and False Allies

I love how music and poetry have a way of saying and capturing truth in ways that normal conversation could not get away with. Artists can say things that touch painful nerve endings, expose hidden intentions, or alleviate deep hurt in unique and beautiful ways. I think this is why the arts are so essential in culture, and why we are called to be little creators in pursuit of creating good things like the Creator. But this post isn’t about art in general, but about a particular song that demonstrates these truths.

“A King and a Kingdom” by Derek Webb always strikes a chord with me, bringing me back to the reality of many of the lies I and our culture believe about the truth of the gospel and the false goodness in our own hearts. What we choose to trust in or despise are often the misperceptions caused by the depravity our hearts are capable of producing. We falsely elevate our own moral “successes” above the misdeeds of others. Our ideologies and relationships become supreme, and instead of our faith influencing our ideologies, our ideologies define our faith. It’s all backwards.

And even with our good intentions and our good ideologies, we often demonstrate and push those beliefs contrary to the very nature of the beliefs themselves. For example, we declare that our political views line up with that of Scripture, yet our responses to those who think differently are usually hateful, maligning, and degrading. It’s not just the content of what you say, people. It is also the graciousness of your delivery. It’s called speaking the truth in love.

We are very good at missing who the real enemy really is… and its us. Its our own hearts. Its our own desires and “righteousness.” All self-righteousness gives us are drunk goggles to look at ourselves with. And let’s be honest, after a couple of self-righteous beers, we can find good in even the most depraved parts of our own hearts…

We are the real enemy. Sin does not exist “out there”, but “in here.” It’s in ME. And until we understand that the weapons of the Kingdom of God are the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) and NOT moralism, political agenda, pro-life picketing , or culture bashing, then evil has won and we are its pawns. Loving your enemy is the greatest threat to the gates of Hell.

So with that, I leave you with the lyrics to Derek’s song. Read. Meditate. Pray. And let the truth sink in.

A King and a Kingdom

(vs. 1)
who’s your brother, who’s your sister
you just walked passed him
i think you missed her
as we’re all migrating to the place where our father lives
’cause we married in to a family of immigrants

(chorus)
my first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man
my first allegiance is not to democracy or blood
it’s to a king & a kingdom

(vs. 2)
there are two great lies that i’ve heard:
“the day you eat of the fruit of that tree, you will not surely die”
and that Jesus Christ was a white, middle-class republican
and if you wanna be saved you have to learn to be like Him

(chorus)

(bridge)
but nothing unifies like a common enemy
and we’ve got one, sure as hell
but he may be living in your house
he may be raising up your kids
he may be sleeping with your wife
oh no, he may not look like you think

To listen to this song, go here!

Saint and Sinner

Living in the tension of the “already, but not yet” is one of the most difficult mysteries in the Christian life. We have been adopted and regenerated into the family of God, but in our current state we are not made completely whole. That is, we are still subject to the effects of sin in our lives. Yet, as followers of Christ we are called to model our lives after our Elder Brother. Jesus, in His life, both accomplished the law, paid the penalty for breaking the law, and freed us from ever having to suffer that punishment. Yet, we still find ourselves sinning.

So often it is this discussion that leads us into so much false teaching about the role of works and righteousness in our lives. Some may say that the presence of sin in our lives is an indication that we are in fact unregenerate. While this may be the case, this is not an assumption we can make. Some may say that it is an effect of not receiving “enough” of the Holy Spirit, or even that we aren’t as mature in our faith. However, this focus can lead us further astray. It relates our works to the level of God’s acceptance of us.

However, we must clarify what it means to live in this world and also have been adopted into God’s family- how we are both saint and sinner. Sinclair Ferguson describes it as a change in our “disposition”. Our hearts that once desired sin now have new affections. We now long to do the good works God has prepared for us. However, we will fail. And we when we do, the Scriptures do not tell us to work harder or do more good things. Rather, they remind us of the forgiveness we have already received. It goes back to the indicatives driving the imperatives. What we need is what has been done, not what needs to be done. There is nothing else to complete, but there is a completion into which we are called to enter into. And in order to understand what it means to pursue holiness, we must begin with the One who was truly holy and what he has accomplished completely for us on the Cross!

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