Thursday, December 22, 2011

Friday, November 18, 2011

Missing the Mark

Last month I heard the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright speak, and the experience engaged me on several levels. It is always inspiring to see a gifted person deliver a message on a topic he or she is passionate about. It was encouraging in this specific case to observe and listen to someone who has labored in the realm of ideas so long and so seriously.

A couple friends asked what the main take-away was for me, and in trying to answer them I kept returning to something Wright said about sin. During the question and answer time someone asked about how the church can maintain a proper focus on personal and societal sin. Wright responded like he does often in his writing—not by answering a question exactly, but by reframing it and thus addressing a more fundamental issue. He said that we ought to think of sin as “missing the mark,” like an arrow shot at a target but fallen short. At least one facet of sin can be described this way: it is the thing that keeps us from the mark of living fully as human beings. The way to not miss the mark is to worship the God who became incarnate on the earth, and in his life, death, and resurrection stands as the True Human.

I like this perspective because it brings clarity to some of our muddled constructs and terminology. If we always categorize sin into the personal kind and the societal kind, we start to think there are two different problems that we deal with in different ways. We enact some sort of cathartic private confession to deal with the first, and we attend big rallies or street protests to combat the second. But the idea of missing the mark doesn’t allow these distinctions to cut so deeply into the real theological issue. Rather, it places Jesus right at the center and orients everything on the spectrum toward him. This seems like a good posture to aim for in our scholarship and in the whole realm of our conduct (personal and collective). I am grateful to Dr. Wright for his insight.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

World-Shaping and the Love of Christ

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner-being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Having addressed the role of the gospel in transforming the individual’s life code and sphere of influence, I am tempted to jump into the romantic and high-profile kinds of world-shaping that arise so easily to dominate our thinking and guide our energy. To do so, however, would not do justice to the centrality of Christ’s love in our role as kingdom seekers and world-shapers.

The kind of love that we see in the Scriptures can be described in countless ways. It is steadfast to the point of inspiring terror. It is defined in essence by the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit, separate yet one in loving union and harmony. It is Christ’s willingness to place himself below humanity so that humanity may be lifted up with him. In Hosea it is the deep pangs of rejection resonating through a forsaken spouse.

But more than anything the love of the gospel is characterized by self-emptying. It is willful suffering for the good of others in obedience to the Father. This is what defines Christ both in his death and in the example of his life on earth, and it is also what should define us as his followers.

The problem is that living a self-emptying life does not usually line up with our ambitions to shape the world, even if those ambitions are “Christian.” For example, how can I move forward with the time-consuming logistical plans to start an organic farming ministry for refugees if I am called before all else to practically lay down my life in the example of Christ for the people around me? (This is a real and pertinent question I’ve pondered over for a few years now).

And the problem is compounded by the fact that the standard paradigm for Christian ministry (in the Western world at least) involves a group of people or an individual person setting a goal and then living in service to that goal before anything else. The mission statement of any local church or ministry is another way of saying, “We will devote ourselves, our resources, and our energy to transforming our sphere of influence in such and such a way.”

If we make it the goal of our life or our ministry to see a particular vision actualized, then whatever grows up will have bad roots and we ourselves will be vulnerable to disease. We will be angry or ashamed when the vision doesn’t happen. We will cover up our deep frustration by saying piously, “We have to accept that for some reason the Lord closed that door.” We will be afraid of people or situations that threaten our vision. Our life energy will be lost—poured out in anxiety over our plans. Worse, we will find that even though we are pursuing a “Christian” goal, our life code has not been redefined by the love of Christ.

But if we willingly lose our lives in self-sacrifice to the people around us, then we will find the life of the gospel. We will have nothing of our own to protect. If we are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ and make the enacting of that love unto the people around us our single goal, then we will bring about the life of the gospel in cooperation with the Spirit. The truth and the commands of Christ will be our life code. The love of Christ will be the thing that defines us; it will permeate our lives in such a way that it can be known by others—not known in the way that a student knows an answer on a test, but known in the way that the Israelites standing before flaming Mount Sinai knew that Yahweh is real and the gods of Egypt are not.

The most fitting summary for all of this, I think, is to say that we are presented with a paradox. We are called to reshape the world as we seek the kingdom of God. But if we make too many plans about how to do that, we lose our lives to those plans instead of directly and intentionally laying our lives down for others in the example of Christ. We are to reshape the world not by our effort, but more so by existing in it as people who, by the power of the Spirit, are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

World-Shaping: Starting with the Life Code

The Life Code: Fear, Anger, and Shame
Every person has a code deep within that governs his behavior. I am calling it a life code. It is a set of principles and convictions about human existence. It forms the centering point to which all of a person’s actions and thoughts are anchored, the axis on which the wheel of one’s behavior turns. Often it is imbedded so deeply that he is unaware both of the code and the forces and experiences that led to its formation. Usually, he cannot see the code’s outworking in his own behavior.

Invariably, it is anger, fear, and shame in some form that mold every person’s life code. A couple years ago, for example, while trying to answer the perceptive questions of a friend and mentor, I realized the extent to which my decisions at the time were governed by fear. Fear was an obstacle in my life. It had been diverting me from trusting obedience. Because of it, I had put myself in a holding pattern for no good reason without even realizing it. How could this have happened? I had just finished Bible college, and the most common command in the Scriptures , after all, is “Do not fear.”

For others, anger rests behind their life code. The source of the anger takes many forms: broken or dysfunctional family relationships, a physical ailment, the death of a loved one, damaging experiences with Christians or Christian organizations, a failed career path, or physical or sexual abuse. People who harbor anger because of their suffering can talk however they want, but in the long run their behavior says, “The world and God and the people around me owe me because of what I’ve been through.”

Next is shame. The list of difficulties above can inspire shame as well as anger. Think of a divorced person, a parent with a rebellious child, a father who loses his job and cannot support his family, a child who grows up knowing her family is poorer than everyone else, an elderly person who can no longer control his body’s functions. People in such situations—and all of us in some way—deal with feelings of shame. It may even be an experience we had in our youth that weighed so heavily upon our person that we bear it the rest of our life. Shame is like a tender bruise that never goes away; we cover it so that no one can touch it and make us hurt. Shame leads us to believe, “I am not worthy because of this.”


Life Codes Set the Format for World-Shaping
A person’s life code drives his or her behavior, and behavior is a way of describing how someone tries to shape his or her world. More than anything, the life code reveals what kind of people make one feel threatened and what kind of people make one feel safe. For example:

A single woman in her thirties or forties may feel threatened by a younger married woman if she believes in her core that being connected to a man validates a woman’s existence. She will order her world in such a way that she can avoid the younger woman and others like her. An old man who cannot work may feel threatened by younger, healthy men if he believes in his core that a man’s worth lies in his work. He will order his world so that he does not have to be around the work he can no longer do or people who still can.

A young man may order his world to invite the companionship of foolish people and keep away those he sees as wise or virtuous if he believes in his core—perhaps because he has heard it since his youth—that he himself is a fool. A young woman may see a louse of a man as a prince only because he shows her attention; she may entrust herself to him if in her core she needs to feel like she belongs. If her friends and family do not like him, she will order her world in a way that distances them because they jeapordize the relationship that makes her feel affirmed.


Salvation and Life Codes
These core convictions—matters of worth, value, and belonging—are the true places where the gospel works in a person’s life. Christ himself comes to encounter the anger, fear, and shame deep within, and at those very places imparts the truth of the Father’s love story. The person’s code then begins to change. Divine love casts out fear. Shame is taken away by Christ. Anger becomes trustful suffering endured under the Father’s goodness.

As the code, the axis, changes, the behavior anchored to it changes, and the person begins to cooperate with the Spirit in the re-ordering of her life. Her world begins to resemble Christ’s kingdom. It becomes a domain where Christ rules and where he is present. The old world becomes new in the following ways:

An appetite for truth will take away deceptive and senseless speech, along with the attractiveness of those who speak it. A person’s possessions may simplify as covetousness is replaced by the ability to celebrate gifts without desiring ownership. Manipulative relationships will heal—or manipulative people find their way out—and loyalty will exist instead. Sexual lust will seem out of place, and those who use sexuality as a tool will no longer be enticing. Other people will no longer be regarded as threats and potential pieces of a self-validating plan. Instead they will be seen as children loved steadfastly by the Father. Routines of complacency will give way to self-sacrificing action. Busy schedules will make room for times of communion with the Father. Private spaces will open up to invite others in to the life of following Christ.

Altogether, faith, hope, love, and peace will come to characterize life as Christ dwells more fully in a person’s being and in his or her sphere of influence. This begins when the gospel enters in and deals with one’s existing life code founded on fear, anger, and shame.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Two Kinds of Worlds to Shape

First of all, there are two angles to the word “world”. The first is the most common sense of the word. The planet earth. The physical place created by God where all humans dwell. We exercise mastery over it. We alter its geography through construction, agriculture, and the extraction of natural resources. With governments and militaries and businesses we control the movement of people and resources over it. Through many other avenues, we determine what it feels like to live in the world for ourselves and for others. We shape the world, collectively as humans.

In another sense, every person lives in and exercises some degree of control over his own world. He has a sphere of influence that includes his immediate physical surroundings. For a child, this physical world might be a play area or a bedroom. For a rural property owner, it may be acreage with a yard, garden, and wooded areas. For a city-dweller, it may be the interior of a rented apartment or condo. To the extent that we are able, we shape these places in a way that suits us and therefore reflects what is within us.

In the same way, we practice the less obvious human habit of shaping our “people environment” in a way that suits us. I read a proverb once that said it well: “Show me your friends, and I will tell you who you are.” The bottom line is that, to the degree we are able, we surround ourselves with the kind of people who make us feel comfortable, desired, and unthreatened. When we cannot find such people, we isolate ourselves and call it loneliness. This is how a person sets the tone for the kind of relational patterns that characterize her world (and, undoubtedly, her own behavior). By observing such patterns in other people, we can start to answer the question, “What would it feel like to live in Danny’s world? Or Katie’s world? Or John’s world? ”

So there is the collective ordering of the world at large and the private ordering of an individual’s sphere of influence. We must have both concepts of world-shaping in place as a framework for understanding salvation and redemption in Christ, and also for understanding what it means to practice life in Christ. The next few posts will focus on one or the other of these aspects of world-shaping, but in reality they are intertwined.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

World-Shaping: Intro

I sat down with a friend recently and we exchanged ideas. He and his family are involved in community development and disciple-making in the diverse neighborhood in Chicago where I work. As our conversation unfolded, it became clear that we are both people who like to think about possibilities. I told him my daydreams about starting a business to provide agricultural jobs for refugees resettled in Chicago. He told me about plans to start an LLC that will provide alternative borrowing options to poor people who fall into cycles of debt though the pay-day loan system.

For he and I both, there was a kind of wonder and a kind of discontent. We shared a common hope in seeing the potential for wrongs to be righted, and a common restlessness because that has not yet happened. We could see all the resources, but had to imagine the connections.

The conversation inspired me to think freshly about the work of humans in shaping the world—and, more specifically, the work of Christ-followers in re-shaping the world as they pursue the Kingdom. In the next few posts (I don’t know how many it will be yet) I’ll set forth some thoughts about how world-shaping plays out in the life of the Body and in humankind in general.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Love and Fury

Lord, I envy the men of the Old Books
who You graced with clear tasks. I see
them in my mind. Bearded nomads and
warriors and agrarians—hard men given
completely to the movements needed for
life to continue under Your hand.

Build an ark.
Follow the pillar of fire.
Kill the Philistine with a stone.
March around the city seven times.
Lay with your wife and produce offspring.


My own times are far less definite. My land
is one of padded fingers clicking buttons. Unseen
figures turning unseen gears. I live among curls
of highway. Constant motion. I breathe a haze
of endless digital signals. Abstractions.
My ears are starved of silence, my eyes so
enlightened that all vision has grown dim.
Good and Evil, Virtue and Sin, Truth and Untruth—
they are only the dross, bubbling atop a few
centuries of rational thinking. And Lord,
obedience? A laugh and wave of the hand.

Ha! The absolute rulers are shut away in
history books, along with the miserable
crowds who endured their tyranny!


But late in the night I sit beneath a circle of
lamplight, fingering the fragile pages of the
old stories. It is here where I learn, as a man,
that greatness rests in those who believe
Your call still pierces with love and fury.

It is clear as the saving path through the Red Sea,
deafening as the blow of trumpets,
and deadly as the glinting swords
that cut down pagan armies.