Saturday, December 18, 2010

Short Drive, Autumn Night

I drive three slow miles in
a green pick-up. Sunlight recedes
and the hollow hum of autumn
echoes over emptying fields.

On the passenger seat a
notebook and tape recorder
glow in the light of the dash.

One mile to the East. Then
I turn onto a smooth road
named after a bridge,
named after a landing,
named after a long-dead man
called Warner, who worked
commerce on the river and
lived in slower days.

Southbound now, the truck carries
me into cool, settling darkness.

I roll down the window
to breathe in the air that
beckons winter. In it,
and in me, there is sadness
and the certainty of loss.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Psalm 58

Psalm 58 is a hard one. I know you probably won’t go read it right now just to see what I’m talking about, and it’s too long to quote the whole thing in a blog entry. So I’ll summarize. It starts out like this:
Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods (or mighty lords)?
Do you judge the children of man uprightly?
No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
Your hands deal out violence on earth.

After this the psalmist launches into a verbal attack on the wicked men who poorly rule and judge. They are like venomous snakes, they speak lies, and they have fangs like young lions. He calls to Yaweh, the covenant God of Israel, to tear out these fangs from their mouths, to let the wicked be like a snail that dissolves into slime or a stillborn baby who never sees the sun. To top it off, the psalmist declares that the righteous will rejoice to see such vengeance and will “bath his feet in the blood of the wicked.”


There are some immediate red flags that go up when we encounter such disturbing imagery in the scriptures. First, we get angry with the arrogant psalmist. “Who is this guy to be thinking of himself as righteous and everyone around him as wicked? Hasn’t he heard of original sin? Doesn’t he know that he is wicked too?” Second, there is the apparent contradiction between the Old and New Testaments. “Jesus says to love and pray for your enemy, but this psalm is basically calling down violent curses and wishing for the death of other people.”

How do we make sense of these kinds of questions? Are they the right questions to ask? Can such a passage possibly speak to us about the God we call to and follow today? Or are we better off to leave it behind and stick with the New Testament and milder Old Testament passages like psalm 23 and psalm 120? Here are a couple observations that can help us understand the place of this psalm and similar ones in the life of the scripture-reading church.

1.The last couple lines. Part of the answer lies in the last lines of the psalm, which (to be fair) I haven’t talked about yet. This is how the psalm finishes:

Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
Surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

This assertion forms a kind of bookend. It places God the righteous judge against the present judges and lords who are violent liars. This comparison helps us to see that at the core of all the distracting imagery, the psalmist is calling out and looking forward to a day when Yaweh will work his good judgment on the earth.

2.On earth. This is an important little phrase because it reminds us that the whole Bible tells the story of God’s saving work upon the earth. The widespread idea of salvation as something that happens to an individual’s spirit after he or she dies simply does not fit with the scriptures. Rather, the Lord’s acts of creation, the formation of Israel, and the giving of the Law and the prophets are all part of his work on earth. All of these led up to the incarnation of Christ on earth, and it is in the person of Jesus Christ (his ministry, death, and resurrection) that the God of the scriptures dealt with evil and began his kingdom on earth. Hence, the promise and hope of God’s people in the church age is the full coming of this just kingdom, the bodily resurrection, and communion with the Father on the renewed earth.

Until that time, part of what we do is observe the evil and injustice around us, as the psalmist does, and call out to the Lord. Our crying out demonstrates our belief that he has worked and is working still to bring about salvation and righteous judgment of evil on earth (as opposed to the present flawed judgment exercised by corrupt human lords).

3.One more thing, which is not an observation but a digression. Many people these days find themselves unable to call out to the Lord in earnest as the spirit of this psalm beckons us to do. This is a problem because, regardless of their speech or reasoning, such an incapability or unwillingness reveals unbelief. Young, disenchanted postmoderns observe evil in the world and, rather than calling out to a just, compassionate, and powerful God, they change God into an absentee creator—a watch-maker who wound things up and walked away at the beginning of time. He cannot be reached now, they say, so what would be the point of calling to him? We might as well work for the bettering of the world through our own community-based undertakings, which also happen to be hip and trendy.

On the other hand is a group of people whose over-spiritualized version of Christianity has left God just as impotent. This kind of Christianity (from which many of the disenchanted postmoderns have fled) makes few concrete demands about how its adherents function on the earth because it understands belief God as an individual and subjective matter. God is a spiritual being, they reason, so he mostly cares about what happens in the “spiritual” realm. Of course, such an attitude bars them from even entering into the kind of indignation voiced by the psalmist as he observes the outworking of evil on the earth.

The irony is that both of these attitudes are but two sides of the same coin of Enlightenment thought. The Enlightenment is the thought movement that began in Europe after the Reformations and laid the foundation for modernism by removing God from the default worldview the masses. Its voices include people like Voltaire, Hume, and Thomas Jefferson. According to scholar N.T. Wright, the Enlightenment’s basic goal was this: “Kick ‘God’ upstairs, make religion a matter of private piety, and then you can organize the world to your own advantage.”

Such an attitude has survived in various forms for centuries, and in many cases the church simply re-voices this message while mixing it with select passages of scripture.

Continuing with the examples above, the first group says, “God is a distant creator who is not involved in the activities of the world; therefore, I’m not bound to his moral imperatives. I can order my life however I want” (a.k.a pursue social justice through mostly human ends while tipping my hat to ‘God’ and sleeping with whomever I please.)

The second group says, “God is a spiritual being mostly concerned with spiritual happenings; therefore, I will be okay as long as I make a regular appearance at church activities because these are the places where spiritual things are dealt with. Other than that I can order my life however I want” (a.k.a. make war on or otherwise oppress whomever I want in order to maintain the way of life on the earth to which I am accustomed.)

Both of these approaches come quite naturally to many professing Christians today, but they are each a far cry from the kind of faith to which the Lord, through the scriptures, calls his people. If we do not work hard to do business with the Bible as a whole, including difficult passages like psalm 58, our inherited-values will be what truly guide us and shape our view of God, his world, and his desire for his followers.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Disciples and the Shame of the World

Bonhoeffer was a serious dude. I want to be like him. I like what he says here about the role that Jesus’ disciples play in taking on the shame of the world as they follow him. It comes from Cost of Discipleship. (Please forgive all the sexist pronouns, I’m just quoting the guy.)

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

These men are without possessions or power, these strangers on earth, these sinners, these followers of Jesus, have in their life with him renounced their own dignity, for they are merciful. As if their own needs and their own distress were not enough, they take upon themselves the distress and humiliation and sin of others.

They have an irresistible love for the down-trodden, the sick, the wretched, the wronged, the outcast and all who are tortured with anxiety. They go out and seek all who are enmeshed in the toils of sin and guilt. No distress is too great, no sin too appalling for their pity. If any man falls into disgrace, the merciful will sacrifice their own honour to shield him, and take his shame upon themselves. They will be found consorting with publicans and sinners, careless of the shame they incur thereby.

In order that they may be merciful they cast away the most priceless treasure of human life, their personal dignity and honour. For the only honour and dignity they know is their Lord’s own mercy, to which alone they owe their very lives. He was not ashamed of his disciples, he became the brother of mankind, and bore their shame unto the death of the cross. That is how Jesus, the crucified, was merciful. His followers owe their lives entirely to that mercy. It makes them forget their own honour and dignity, and seek the society of sinners.

They are glad to incur such reproach, for they know that then they are blessed. One day God himself will come down and take upon himself their sin and shame. He will cover them with his own honour and remove their disgrace. It will be his glory to bear the shame of sinners and to clothe them with his honour. Blessed are the merciful, for they have the Merciful for their Lord.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On the El and Thinking

Highways and public transit are
the root system of the business district.
Each day the trains and traffic pulse the same.
Over hundreds of square miles of land,
well beyond the city’s drip line, they stretch
to take in life and make the tower grow.

Years ago Anderson wrote of this giant
who then crept through the nation’s quiet fields
slowly taking hold of our talent, our creativity,
our gifts of heaven. Over time we came to
him with increasing willingness—with progress
in our minds and science
on our side and money to be made.
And we forgot about life.

This morning I dissolve again into
the grey day’s workforce.
I am a brooding nutrient
packed into a stuffy vessel tottering on
elevated tracks toward the tall buildings
at Lake Michigan’s shore.

Each time the train car stops it reveals
the frightening silence of working people
on their lonesome way. A few times
I dare to look the other human beings
in the eye. Without speaking we
ask one another, “If we are all
doing our part to help something live,
why do we feel so dead?”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Inspiration From a Smiling Child

This evening a little girl sitting in a grocery cart smiled at me. She was probably one and a half, with dark hair hanging in curls beside her dark eyes. Her mother was deliberating between boxes of cereal as I strolled past with my plastic basket full of groceries, my hand gripping my shopping list scribbled on a note card. The girl watched me. Her stare, curious and innocent, and the freedom with which she moved brought tears to my eyes for just a second after I passed by.

What made the moment poetic? I think it was her simplicity. A child knows very few things. Chief among these are her own hunger and thirst and the safety that accompanies familiar or friendly people. She does not know about budgets, sale prices, the four food groups. Her mind does not grow weary analyzing the ethics behind or her diet or guessing at the thoughts in the minds of strangers. She has not yet learned the fear instilled by the governing forces of a society or the shrewd art of dealing with people. In short, she knows and believes in goodness, and from this simple belief all of her actions flow.

It takes a long time to regain the kind of faith we had as children. For those who have not embraced the promise and truth of Christ, restored trust in Goodness and the restful and free life that grows from it may never come. And of course, we who are reborn in faith still face continual hardships that batter down our hope in the goodness of God. The weight of getting on in the world descends and divides us so that few of our actions are linked to a clear motivation or a single, deep conviction.

Nonetheless, to have the simple trust of children is part of the Christian hope. The Lord draws us to rest in himself. He heals us over and over from the wounds inflicted since our memories began, and through it we hold to the truth of the good Father and the coming good Kingdom. Even through the stings of suffering and the drudgery of living, our lives can resemble the beauty of children at play. They can inspire the same kind of startling wonder as the little girl who smiled at me in the grocery store.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Psalm for "Nones"

Recently I spoke with some friends about the destiny of disillusioned, church-raised twenty-somethings. A few of us were visiting with a college friend who now lives in the Pacific Northwest, and the conversation started something like this, “So I heard you don’t go to church anymore either.” I found it particularly telling of the Generation Y experience.

Though I am a member of the local church where I was raised, I feel that I best fit into this allegedly growing demographic that some culture monitors call the “nones.” These are people who claim no official ties to a denomination or congregation yet consider themselves people of active Christian faith.

I get lost in the terminology—postmodern, emergent, neo-monastic, anarcho-primitivist, house church, intentional community, missional community, ect. The books, websites, and seminars where this language is born serve as both public representations and facilitators of cultural movements. At the most basic level, the jargon reflects different limbs of the Church asking the same questions about how to practice life in Christ.

My own study, prayer, and practice have certainly taken shape under the influence of larger thought patterns. After all, we are all individual actors living within complex systems of influence that shift with the ages. It is precisely for this reason, in fact, that we must wed ourselves to the treasure and truth of the Scriptures, allowing the story of God’s saving action in the world to form our identity and guide our lives. To this end, I have found myself reflecting often on Psalm 131, which is a fitting prayer for a generation of restless skeptics. Here it is:

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
My eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
Too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

Like a weaned child with its mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time forth and forever more.

Hebrew scholar Robert Alter describes the first four lines of this psalm as “images of reaching beyond.” How fittingly this describes the striving and stirring of many believing young adults. We move from place to place and group to group, looking for a sense of belonging. We promote our ideas and ministries hoping to gain a feeling of satisfaction. We debate with others and perpetually question ourselves, waiting for validation or peace of mind. Much of this behavior flows from our legitimate effort, as individuals and as a body, to understand the faith we have inherited and how it relates to our experiences.

Often in these efforts, however, we do not realize that we are reaching beyond the source. This is where the psalmist introduces the image of a weaned baby. A weaned child no longer receives the nourishment she craves. Milk no longer flows at her desire, so she fusses and cries. She does not understand. But eventually she learns to rest against the source itself. Calmed and quite, she knows the presence, goodness, and love of her mother, even if her belly still hungers.The psalm’s closing line admonishes Israel to hope in (or wait for) the Lord with contentment, trust, and intimate familiarity with Yahweh.

My prayer for myself and my generation is the same. We are skeptical that our questions can be answered, but hopefully this attitude will lead us deeper into the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge. Like babies, we fuss and squirm and start smoking and quit going to church, but hopefully older generations will bear with us and be for us the patient presence of the One who is truth and provides rest. Because of injustice and systemic evils, we pout with God and try to recreate him to our liking; but hopefully we will find the humble clarity to see our blunders and trust his goodness.

Hopefully we will learn not to lift our eyes to lofty doctrines or new philosophies for comfort. Instead may we lean against our Father. From beneath the verbiage of our age, he invites to know him and hope in him even when he withholds from us the answers and direction we desire.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Scripture as Story

Do we best approach the Scriptures as a directive for holy living or as a true story to which we belong? Recently I have been thinking about all the reasons that the latter is more appropriate. Here are a few words of explanation.

We have to recognize, first of all, that there are always strong societal forces telling us who we are, what is true, and how to act. For example, the modern economy to which are all bound ascribes value to people based on how they contribute to it; thus, the resulting American tendency to let our work identify us and justify our existence.* We are also told over and over again that we need to be able to buy certain things in order to live respectably. The default path to achieve this (these days) is to go into debt for a degree, then find a full-time job so that you can pay off the degree and earn what you need to pay for everything else. Also, our culture continually impresses upon us the concept of individual rights, the importance of self-sufficiency, and the prerogative of well-being ensured by man-made powers. These are some of the gods of our age.

I recognize that it is foolish to descend into fruitless critiques of society. As a twenty something reared in postmodernism, I am careful to avoid being infected with the disease of thankless cynicism in this regard. However, it is important to assess the value system into which we are born, understand how it effects the way we practice our faith, and make adjustments accordingly.

Certainly, we are no less bombarded by the untruth of idols than the ancient Israelites were in their day. Warning and punishment for idolatry permeates the Old Testament. To exist among the pagans often brought Israel into very practical situations that boiled down to a simple decision.**

For example, when drought threatened their crops, they had a choice: call on Yahweh or call on Baal. In picking one or the other, they proclaimed who gave them truth. Yahweh reminded them through the Law, the Feasts, the Psalms, and the Prophets that He chose them, created them as his people, and therefore merits their obedience. But they believed that they belonged to the false stories of the pagan gods and found their identity there. Through the same means of grace, Yahweh also assured them that his covenant and his promises are true, but they embraced instead the truth handed to them by their environment.

Accordingly, their practice flowed from their beliefs. As the story of the Old Testament goes, over and over the Israelites’ feet carried them not to the tabernacle but to pagan shrines. Their routines brought them not to the reminding rituals of Sabbath, Jubilee, and the reading of the Law, but to pagan fertility cults.

The point of God’s revelation to humankind has never been to tell us what to do and what not to do. After all, Paul describes the Law as something given by God to lead his people to himself, incarnated in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24).

In a day where our society’s forces speak to us just as powerfully as the pagan powers beckoned the Israelites, we need to be reminded who we belong to. This is ultimately the point of Christian rituals like teaching from the Scriptures, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, celebrating communion, baptizing, gathering for fellowship, and using certain greetings. Even in the daily routines of the home, such practices should serve to remind us that we are not a people of the world. Our behavior is not guided by the gods of self-sufficiency and individual rights; rather, it flows from our knowledge of the One to whom we belong. His call, to believe in the death and resurrection of Christ and follow him in suffering, will lead us to places quite different than the call of our culture.

* Sherwood Anderson sheds light on the role of work in the modern American psyche in his novel Poor White. Set in the late 1800s, the story follows the life of a lonely Missourian who moves to Ohio. Longing for a sense of belonging, he starts inventing farm machinery and views his work as a portal of entry into the small town’s community. Though he becomes a successful and famous inventor, his inner-person remains unknown as he searches for companionship.

**In The Prophetic Imagination Walter Brueggemann describes the Exodus as an event where God redefined truth and the source of knowledge for his people by showing that the Egyptian gods and their dogmas were false.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Journaling, May 2010

What will Salina township be like in 20 years? How many more people will live in these 36 square miles? How many of the gravel roads will be paved? How many of the fields will have been sold off and turned into housing developments? Will Warner Bridge road be an interstate bypass lined with gas stations, shopping centers, and fast food restaurants?

If so, all those things will only be the continuation of the prairie's “development,” a process that started in this area in the 1830s. More layers of laws and ordinances. The expansion of habitation onto new ground, creating new pockets of producers and consumers that further link the land itself to a complex economy.

For example, the place where I'm trespassing (I mean sitting) right now—some acreage with woods, field, and old farm buildings whose owner lives in the Chicago suburbs. Part of this land is farmed, the produce sold to the food industry and the profits split between the farmers and the owner. The wooded grove where the farmhouse used to be, all this land does is sit here. The owner pays property taxes on it. Grass and trees and flowers grow on it. Deer and squirrels and raccoons and birds live on it. A farmer stores some equipment in the old shed. That's it.

If someday they turn it into another wooded rural subdivision, like Timberline a mile to the southeast, there will be x number of lots on which people will build homes. The homes will be connected to Exelon through power lines. They will have gas tanks filled by Kinder Morgan or Nicor or whoever. They will be filled with people whose income comes from some professional field or industry and who live off of commodities purchased from giant companies. They will use fossil fuels to work and go to school and go to church and mow their yards. They will form a home-owners association that says the grass cannot be over a certain length. They will expand the duties of their educational and postal district. And so on, and so on.

All of those things are true of my own home and family, more or less. We settled down on the corner of 4000 and 8000 roads in 1987 and starting doing all of those things. And we were only following my great great grandparents, Abraham and Amelia, who brought their own share of progress to Kankakee County from Pennsylvania in the 1850s. The place, and the forces which guide the patterns of life for those living here, have changed loads since the days when they passed Sunday afternoons sitting on the porch, like my folks and I did today. And it will change, I think, with frightening rapidity in the coming generation.

The sights and sounds and smells that I have enjoyed growing up here are changing and will continue to change. Another bridge will span the river. Bourbonnais, Limestone, Manteno, and Kankakee will expand and join together (Just like Kanakakee, Bourbonnais, and Bradley, first called North Kankakee, used to be geographically separate.) The sound of cars will come closer, drowning out the birdsongs. Aging farmers and property owners will die and their children will sell the land to developers. None of that is new; it's been happening my whole lifetime and my parent's whole lifetimes, at least.

All of this is not necessarily bad, either. To a degree, it's just that: necessary. Population is growing, and people have to live somewhere. But with the coming of new things, old things are lost. That's the story of the Midwest, and it is of course how history in general works. One tribe makes war on another and then occupies their land. Indians are removed, and the land that once was hunted is cultivated by new animals and new people planting new crops. Those people die or sell their land because they cannot keep up with the demands of the changing market, and it is farmed by new people with new machines and new methods. Next it passes to the hands of developers and then is lived upon by people whose means of living lies elsewhere—commuters.

The hope should be that people move this whole process forward in a way that somehow recognizes and values the things that are lost. In so doing, we can ensure that those things are not completely lost. And this is important because it reminds us that creation (including people themselves) has value beyond the monetary value ascribed to it by the modern economy. It has value because people and creatures have lived upon it and called it home. People call this nostalgia, but hopefully I've made a case that there is more to it than that.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Talking With a Pastor about Conventional Church Ministry

Recently I had a lengthy meeting with a pastor, and we discussed my views about church. He asked me lots of questions, and it was kind of scary. I knew going into the conversation that we'd be at opposite ends of the spectrum on lots of things. So I found myself trying to articulate some of my criticisms of conventional church ministry to someone who has devoted most of his life to such ministry. No wonder it was kind of hard. I've been thinking back over the conversation, and what follows are some of the main points to take away.

First of all, the conversation reaffirmed a sense that the Lord is calling me to figure out how to love the Church instead of loving a way of doing church. Related to this task is the constant temptation to try to change people or in some way exercise usury over them in order to win them over to a different ideology. Carrying out such an agenda inhibits acts of sacrificial love and therefore is not Christ-like.

Here's an example of how this plays out. I'm convinced that program-based ministry often encourages behavior modification instead of nurturing sanctification. People running ministry programs usually desire that members of the flock will eventually meet certain expectations. The problem is that these expectations easily become outward, man-made criteria. If a "lay Christian" attends a weekly service, Bible study, or youth group meeting, uses Christian-sounding language, and seems to behave in a way deemed appropriate by other church-goers and leadership, then he or she is counted as okay. Ministry is validated by these results. But has that ministry accounted for the deep and slow transformation of the old person into the new? Is it calibrated for the long-stretching re-creation in Christ that begins in a person's innermost parts? Does it allow for the bumps (or sometimes giant potholes) in the road that are often an unpleasant part of this process? Often times the answer is no, I think.

However, if I were to go around spouting off a litany of criticism against traditional church ministry and trying to get people to believe like me or join my "new expression" of church, I would be doing the exact same thing. I would be looking for behavior modification. I would be saying, "When you meet my expectations, what I do will be validated and you will be okay." Instead, I must meet people wherever they are (including wherever they are on the church spectrum) and desire that from that point Christ would meet them and be formed in them. Christ would be formed in them, not a mini-version of Jacob Mau.

Secondly, the pastor told me that my ideals are not ideal. I'm not certain he understood my ideals. At first I was offended and indignant because I try hard to make sure my ideals are simply to love God and love people well and to encourage others in that endeavor. And I don't buy into the notion that idealism is a side-effect of youth that wears off when you take on "adult" responsibilities. Nonetheless, the pastor's remark is a challenge for me to not become too possessive, too aware of, too defined by my ideals. Because that's when people lose sight and start seeking their own kingdom rather than the Kingdom of Heaven.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Those of you who know me, don't be weirded out. I've been reading Sherwood Anderson. This poem stems from reflection on a question he explores in his novel Poor White.

Can the human longing for intimacy be satisfied by other humans?

The motions of my lover remind me
Every time that she is close
And she is good
And she will stay.

With her I rest, fully known-
The fearful mystery of my own person
Dissolved in a quiet embrace.

Oh Love, cover over my offenses
With your sweet, persisting presence
And with movements of devotion
Soft and pleasing as the falling rain.

I bend low like a willow branch.
Only here can I weep without wilting.
For in the peace of our union
I know that I am safe.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bike Ride

Last night I took a bike ride. Two miles south, two miles west, two miles north, and two miles east. I left a little before eight o’clock, as the sun was setting and another evening settled over the fields and homes. Here are a few things I saw and thought about:

1.The Earth and People. Land itself is the same anywhere. Land does what it does, no matter the country, the continent, or even the geography. It stays put and sustains creatures that dwell upon it. Humans dominate the land. We build structures on it, ascribe monetary value to it, dig ditches and tunnels in it, alter it to plant crops, drive over it, and create systems of laws and regulations that hover over it. But in a sense the land itself remains indifferent to all those things. It stays put and sustains creatures that dwell upon it.

2.The Barrios of Caracas.
I have a friend who serves with a Christian order called Innerchange and has lived in Caracas for three years. Last time she visited Chicago, she spoke about how in the barrios nobody goes out after 7pm. If you do, you know that anybody else you see on the street is up to no good. She also spoke of a recently murdered taxi driver, the last person she saw before she entered the airport on her most recent trip to the States.

There are many places in the world where people are restricted by forces alien to the farmland that is my home. Growing up, I did not worry about violence when I played in front of my house. I never knew any victims of murder. Ever since my parents allowed me to, I’ve been able to take a quite bike ride as the sun sets. In fact, historian James E. Davis contends in his book Frontier Illinois that the history of the Illinois territory displays a remarkable lack of violence compared to the other states in the Old Northwest and the Western frontier. Why are some humans born into communities on quite prairies and others born into violent ghettos? Is one of these really better than the other? Are both marked by sin and oppression manifesting themselves in different forms?

3.Being a Political Actor. I lack political identity. In fact, I’ve never voted. I go back and forth between feeling that this is justifiable and that it is an embarrassment. It is justifiable because underneath the daily political antics we absorb through the media are foundational ideas about human nature and social organization (which are naturally theological ideas as well). A citizen’s political actions should grow up from a firm grounding in these foundational concepts, not solely from the way that certain pieces of legislation effect their own lives or their immediate community. I am not yet grounded enough to discern what things should matter most, thus to not vote is better than to vote poorly. It is justifiable.

However, the responsibility to become grounded and therefore active lies on me as a citizen. To be lazy in this regard is an embarrassment. And in a sense, a bike ride around my township is part of the process of gaining political identity, for law is ultimately an intangible force that translates into certain actions and patterns of life in a geographic area. Some historians call it “officialdom.” It is created by certain people in certain places and extends across thousands of miles of land, land that has sustained generations of people.

How can one be a responsible member of a community or nation without searching out the voices of people passed and people present? For rural people who are looking, I believe these two groups meet in the local landscape. A run down corn crib overgrown with foliage and tilting on its sinking foundation. A quite house on the corner with a giant flat screen TV flashing away through the living room window. A farmer mixing chemicals in a giant plastic tub and spraying it on his corn, twelve rows at a time. A pair of Killdeers gliding and swooping over newly sprouting soybeans. Dozens of yards with long, straight lines etched in the short grass.

These are only a tiny representation of the sights, sounds, and smells over which the people, through their elected officials, extend their rule. Perhaps, however, it is as necessary to stay connected to them as it is to follow the perpetual babble of legislators and media.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ephesians 3:14-21: A Prayer

Lord, help me. Lord, thank you for your love, the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge. Help me to know your unknowable love and turn to it always. Fill me, God, with your fullness that I may have no need to seek fulfillment any other place. Be close to me, Oh Christ, for I cannot understand the pain I cause in disobedience, acting outside of your love.

Forgive me and make me new, Lord.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Robo Resurrection?

Sitting in a Palm Sunday service this year, I watched a video clip that left me very unsettled. It was about 45 seconds long and was filled with the kinds of sounds in commercials for high definition stereo systems. In a jagged font, words like “crucified, beaten, forgiveness, savior” spurted on and off the screen. The point was to encourage viewers to invite non-believers to the Easter Sunday service, where their lives—swish—could be changed—shwoo—forever—CLANK.

The other goal, as far as I could tell, was to make me feel like I had just watched a chase scene from one of the Matrix movies. Lacking only the signature action-movie-preview-guy voice, this clip was altogether inappropriate because of its underlying message. The following paragraphs explain.

Ministry events, contrary to what this video subtly communicated, are not the focus of a believer’s life in Christ. While participating in the local body of believers is important, God’s movement in a person’s life is not limited to church-related activities. This seems obvious, and no one would say differently. But our readiness to pour energy and resources into Sunday services, youth group meetings, retreats, facilities, and so forth, often contradicts our words.

Church leaders, who are examples to the flock and therefore teach always through their words and deeds, must make sure that rituals occupy an appropriate role in the lives of believers. Because the world ultimately desires to see Christ present in his people, the things that take place outside of events are the most important. The point of gathering as the church is to nurture people for those times. Christ, the Head, who dwells in each member of the body, strengthens his people when they fellowship so that they may walk in his love without wavering when they are on their own. As this occurs they bear witness to the world in word and deed. Few pastors would disagree that this is a vital role, if not the very purpose, of the church’s corporate gatherings.

Yet when leaders by example encourage others to invest huge amounts of resources and energy into events that are allegedly not the focus of the Christian’s life in Christ, they send an inconsistent message. The pastors, elders, deacons, and teachers want people to be equipped for godly living day-to-day through the ministry of the local church. But when they set before me a Sunday morning video clip that uses visual stimulants and sound effects to get my heart pumping fast about next week’s life-changing service, I suspect that what they are mostly thinking about is next week’s life-changing service, not the way I live between now and then as a fellow member of Christ’s body.

If we are not careful, leadership and lay people together are transformed under the glow of the video screen. Instead of spiritual family in Christ, commanded to love one another in the Father’s example, bear with one another in patience, and speak truth to one another through Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, we turn into mere audience members who reconvene weekly, hopefully meeting the minimum expectation of bringing a non-believing friend to a service. This may be enough to satisfy a Palm Sunday video gimmick, but Christ himself demands much more of his followers.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Government and Ministry

All of the discussion about the recent health care bill reminds me that Christian ministry and government often operate the same way: leaders plan things to fix problems.

For both entities, this top-down system works to varying degrees. Sometimes people are actually helped through the resulting programs, and sometimes expanding, bureaucratic operations exacerbate the very problems they aim to fix. Here are a few examples of how church ministry follows this pattern:

People feel unnoticed because their church congregation is so large.
Solution: We will put greeters at the door to say hello to people when they enter the building.
Resulting Problem: The responsibility to show kindness shifts from all believers to a designated person with an assigned task.

Many Christians feel lonely or depressed.
Solution: We will offer professional counseling services through our staff.
Resulting Problem: The Christian’s responsibility to help bear the burdens of his brothers and sisters moves to a professional with an assigned task.

Problem: Children are not being nurtured in the gospel by their parents and families.
Solution: We will build a solid children’s ministry where kids receive the nurturing care and instruction in the faith that they do not receive at home.
Resulting problem: Family life is further segmented by adding to the schedule another night away from home. Christian parents have the opportunity to easily pass their responsibility of modeling Christ-like faith off to children’s ministers.

Problem: Christian singles feel lonely and misplaced.
Solution: We will start a singles ministry with a singles pastor who can take concern for their spiritual well-being and plan activities for them.
Resulting Problem: Singles are further misplaced and turned into their own group because the believing community is not encouraged to show love by inviting them into their own families. 

Problem: There are poor people in our community.
Solution: We will start a benevolence ministry.
Resulting Problem: Many people donate to the ministry and feel justified, but the responsibility of actually helping and being with needy people shifts to a few volunteers or staff. Furthermore, recipients of this ministry will most likely feel that they have been given sympathy, not love.  

In all these ways, people in Christian ministry, just like people in government, plan things to fix problems. As the “answers” are being carried out, we centralize character qualities that all Christians should embody, and we formalize responsibilities that all Christians should share. The end result is a church of Christians (or a nation of citizens) who are convinced that something better is needed but don’t seem capable of living their own lives according to the principles that would bring that change about.

In the end, people do not look to a plan or program for help, encouragement, and love; they look to other people. It is the duty of the whole church, therefore, to ensure that before there are programs, there are people in whom Christ and his truth dwell richly. The work starts small, as a saint lays down his life for one son or daughter of God at a time. And the foundation of this work must be Christ-like love, not a desire to fix problems.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Follow Me as I Follow Christ

How can the body of Christ better produce people of Christ-like substance? Of all the perennial questions the church asks itself, this one has received a lot of attention lately. There is no shortage of recent books outlining people's disillusion with their church experience, especially young people. Some of those criticisms are valid and some are not. Yet no one can deny the ongoing longing, from inside and outside the church, for followers of Jesus whose lives line up to the example of their Master.

In the book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon provide insight into this question. In short, their answer is discipleship. While they write with the public ethic of the church in mind, we must apply their reasoning to daily, interpersonal conduct as well. The next couple of paragraphs give their basic line of thought.

People of all ages and cultures operate on assumed values they do not even realize they have. One of the values built in to many modern democracies is traced back to Kant's notion that there is no need to imitate moral people in order to become moral. Rather, Kant argued, all anybody needs to do to achieve morality is to think clearly for him or herself.

Of course, this assumption directly contradicts Christian discipleship, which calls us to learn appropriate belief and conduct by following the teaching and example of another. Part of pastoral ministry, the authors say, is to therefore counteract this ingrained mode of thinking by recognizing mature Christians and challenging others to imitate them. “In sermons, in teaching, in pastoral care and administration, pastors practice ethics by lifting up specific historical examples, saints, for the rest of us to emulate”(109).

I agree with this point and take it a step further. All Christians must aspire to be like the apostle Paul, who without hesitation calls others to imitate himself as he imitates Christ (I Cor. 11:1). Peter encourages elders in a similar manner in I Peter chapter five: “Shepherd the flock of God among you, not under compulsion, but eagerly, not for shameful gain, but willingly, as God would have you, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

Instead of taking truth from the architects of worldly systems, disciples learn the truth of Christ in the Scriptures and speak it to one another each day. Instead of settling for human patterns of interaction, they recognize that they need one another because in Christ they are members of one another. Disciples seek not only to follow mature believers , but also to be examples by allowing others into their lives. They live in humility through mutual confession of sins. As sons and daughters of God the Father, they walk in divine love and invite others to walk with them. This is discipleship, and it is vital for producing the kind of people for which the world hungers.

Monday, January 18, 2010

To Those Who Reside As Aliens...

Through the resurrection of the Christ,
comes rebirth into the Father's
mysterious salvation. We are now
a people whose living hope lies ahead—
resurrection and unending fellowship
with our Father.

Fixed on this awaiting grace,
we order our lives accordingly.

We continue not in the futile way
of life handed down. Called out
of darkness, we turn from evil
in all its forms. Called into light,
we do good and seek peace.

Like Christ upon the cross, we endure
injustice for the sake of others.
We leave behind carnal habits that
bind us to a world not ours—
malice, deceit, hypocrisy,
envy, slander, lust.

To the world, we seem peculiar.

They see separation from evil
and ponder us. They wonder
of our kinship and our
fervent, patient love.

A people so assured,
so fearless, so humble,
so eager to do good. I have
never known such folk.

We answer, “Come. Hear of our Hope.
He died in weakness and calls us
to suffer. He endured scorn
without reply. He threatened not
his sinful killers. He was wounded
in innocence and so healed us.
By him we live in peace, unafraid
of divine judgment, for now
we are sons and daughters.”

“Yes, on the tree he made us family.
So together we wait for him to rise
again-this time from the Father's
right hand, to descend and
make our call complete.”