Saturday, December 22, 2012

Do We Have the Correct View of God's Wrath?

Wrath seems to be a term that many modern theologians now smack their lips over. It is a word that they cannot keep from their lips when speaking or from their fingertips when typing. In today's popular theology, wrath has come to be understood as an almost insatiable appetite of the Most High, something that, at all cost, God must be appease.

There is an image being given of the Trinity in which the Son stands between the Father and the redeemed, defending us from His wrath. Where the Spirit is in all of this is not always fleshed out, which is another telling mark of today’s popular theology. In light of this view of Christ's grace, many talk about Christ's work as appeasing to God's appetite for wrath instead of a ransom paid for our sin, but what does this mean?
This is a question never really answered. Instead, ideas of God's wrath seem assumed or carelessly formed with no real theological consideration. Instead of seeking Scriptural understanding, ideas like the fact that a God of infinite love is also a God of infinite anger are assumed to be self-explanatory. Taking all this into consideration, what view of God is given by this popular theology?
Without giving qualification, it seems that God ends up being a very angry and divided being, simply waiting for a chance to deal his retribution upon an ungrateful people. The fact that wrath can be expressed from the Almighty can remain true, and yet, it might elicit a very different set of views of God if we take a step back and define our terms. Otherwise, we must join in with many of the more modern and popular theologians in defending a God that seems petty, vindictive, and retributive.
 It is natural to assume we know the meaning of simple terms like wrath, but I would argue that we have assumed the term to be much flatter than it actually is, and we have tarnished our vision of God's character in the process. While God is revealed in human terms, we must allow Him to redefine them when they are used of Him. Any term that is first understood from a purely humanistic standpoint cannot hold up to His divine character.
We must not begin to talk of God's wrath before we properly understand wrath. Let's go back to the popular expression: "A God of infinite love must also be a God of infinite anger." Even when we think of this anger as righteous anger, an anger forever beset against evil, sin, and death, it can be worrisome. Once again, with proper perspective, this might not be so troublesome. While the above statement seems logical enough, it often elicits an unwarranted conclusion: Contrary to the assumptions of popular theology, love and anger are not two equally powerful and separate expressions of God's character.
In other words, we are not warranted to suggest that if God is described as being loving and being angry at separate points in Scripture, then we too must say in the same breath with, "God is Love," that "God is anger." Imagining love and anger as being two separate feelings God forever emotes is too dualistic. It is the sad result of allowing too much Greek philosophy into our theology, which would be better viewed through a Hebraic lens. Unfortunately, much modern theology has been developed from more Greek perspectives than Hebraic, Augustine being a champion of such theology, and a hero to many of our modern writers.
 The truth of the matter is that the Bible says, "God is love." It does not say, "God is anger." However, this dualistic perspective in which all of God’s qualities are forever emoted is often the view of God's love and anger. One might want to delve into a bit of logical philosophy and argue that if God is ever angry in the course of human history, then he must be angry all of the time for God is unchanging. This, of course, being the inevitable question of Greek philosophy concerning “the perfect,” since Greek thought teaches that perfection is static and unchanging in any way.
If this were true, then we would also wish to affirm that God is forever disappointed, for there were times in which humanity obviously disappointed God. Of course we would not wish to think this of God, but if this is the sort of "logic" we use, then this is necessarily the case. This is too flat an understanding of emotions, and simply is not the Scriptural view of God, who is not simply a static perfection, but is a perfection that is also personal.
Simply put, God is love, and from that Character, he has the potential to express His love in various ways. Love expresses itself in various forms depending on the situation. If your child demonstrates great love by standing up for a friend, your love might express itself in praise. However, if your child demonstrates great selfishness by bullying another child, your love for your child might express itself with admonishment. The love for the child has not changed; it simply responds differently. In the case of where the child expresses good qualities that will be of benefit as he or she matures, love affirms, and, in the case where the child expresses self-destructive qualities that will damage him or her as he or she matures, love discourages.
So that which we often affirm as a positive expression of love is not separate from a negative expression of the same love, they are simply varying and appropriate expressions of that same love. To think that for God to have a characteristic it must forever be kinetic, in other words, it must be active, is too simplistic. Instead, we must understand that some abilities of God are potential, always existing as a capability, but only expressed at logical points in which they need to be expressed through personal response. To think of God as a static being, always and forever exuding certain expressions is a Greek view that has permeated Western Christian thought, and is problematic when imported into a more Judeo-Christian understanding of God. 
What does this mean? Quite simply, this means that anger is not a characteristic of God that is to be juxtaposed to love. They do not belong on the same plane. Moreover, this means that love is not simply a characteristic of God, but is the summation of His character. In short, anger is not an equal quality to love, but is an expression that love takes in its position against those things damaging to that which love directs its service. In other words, anger is a form of love as it relates to that which is evil.
Moreover, anger has to be understood in its highest sense. We cannot think of the anger that we often experience that makes us petty, retributive, and vindictive. God is none of these things. Even while God is angry at sin and evil, he is also a joy-filled God, happy in the knowledge that He has dealt with sin in an everlasting way through the atonement of Christ. Therefore, we must not import our common experiences of being angry that are often accompanied by emotional turmoil and fits of rage. From a human perspective, anger is often an uncontrollable feeling, but to God it is a very controlled response to sin, and wrath is only a response of anger when necessary.
Since God is love (I John 4:16), he cannot be slow to loving. Whatever He does, He does in love, for that is His very character. But, the Bible clearly states that God is slow to anger (Exodus 34:6). Moreover, while God's love can never be lessened by the actions of men, His anger can (Numbers 25:11). Clearly love and anger are not equal emotions or characteristics of God. Moreover, God is not divided by His love and His anger.
Christ does not stand in the way of a Father who wants nothing more than to lash out at us. This is an unfortunate idea of popular theology that must be discarded. If the Trinity teaches us anything about God, it teaches us the equality of the Father and the Son, as well as the Spirit. It teaches that each member is working hand-in-hand to accomplish the will of the Godhead. If Christ's love is demonstrated in the cross so that we come to understand that Jesus love is selfless, outward-focused, cruciform love, then we must understand that what is at the center of Christ's heart is also at the center of the Father's heart.
If the Son is selfless, the Father cannot be vindictive and retributive. Christ was not the only member of the Trinity to make a sacrifice for us. So, once again, God's wrath becomes a position that Holy Love (the Character of God) takes in light of evil. Love is the defining characteristic of God, not anger. Without evil, love need not be wrathful. Yet, until evil is fully dealt with, wrath will be expressed when needed.
What does all this mean? It means contrary to the assumptions of popular theology that God does not intrinsically need to appease an appetite for wrath. It means that He has not simply created subjects to punish as an expression of His character just as He has created subjects to love out of expression of His character. It means we were all created as an expression of God’s character, which the Bible tells us is love.
It also means that the Father and the Son are not in opposition when it comes to how they each wish to treat humanity. Finally, it means that love and anger are not equal, dualistic forces, but that anger is an expression of love. Just as we would be naturally angered at that which means harm towards the ones we love, the God of Love is moved to anger against that which is set out to harm that which He loves. Wrath is not simply about making sure God gets the glory He deserves; it is about taking on that which God selflessly loves.
Does this mean that the world can breath a sigh of relief since anger might not be as big a deal as popular theology has suggested? If this is a relief for Christians who, in light of this confused theology, could not fathom a God of wrath ever loving a sinner like them, then yes. However, this should not give relief to any human that gives his or her self over to evil. While this person was created as an expression of love, if this person gives him or her self over to evil, God will, in His patient timing, eventually exact wrath in order to stop evil.
God's wrath is directed towards that which is harmful to that which He loves, and placing yourself in the camp of evil is placing yourself in the wake of God's wrath, and we must understand the sheer determination of God when it comes to dealing with evil. He is so against evil that He would subject Himself to death on a cross in order to defeat it. If an all-powerful God would subject Himself to such, we must not be mistaken concerning the extent He will go in utterly destroying evil. Hell fire and brimstone is an utterly fitting discussion to have when considering our future states if left in sin. It is a warning to not give one’s self over to evil, but over to love. The saying: "A God of infinite love must also be a God of infinite anger," is very true in the sense that God's love is forever against evil.
We must be forever mindful to respect and uphold the character of God. Popular theology would agree with this by saying that God is most concerned with His glorification, more so than His concern for the salvation of humanity. This stems from this dualistic view of God's characteristics. God is not a glory monger who also happens to be merciful to some. He is concerned about His character namely because He loves us. When we misunderstand His character, we misunderstand our place in reality.

We are made to serve God, for being under Him is our protection. To place our selves outside His rule is to place our selves in harms way. His concern to right our misconception of His glory deserving character is an expression of His Love. Respecting God's character is much more about being good representatives of His character for the sake of others over being a benefit to the Almighty. If I misunderstand God, what does that do to diminish Him? It does nothing at all to diminish Him. He does not need me to do or understand anything in order to be complete in His joy. Instead, it is a detriment to me to misunderstand God, for if I do not take His glory seriously, I misalign myself from that which provides me life. Moreover, when I misrepresent God, I run the real risk of leading others astray. Such mistreatment of God's character is evil for it is a harm to those whom God loves, and this means I am in real danger of God's wrath which is set to make right those things that are perverted and bent out of shape and cause harm to the beings and things He loves.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

“I’m Just a Sinner Saved By Grace”…Really?

There is a big question floating around our nation right now, and it is highly theological. We don’t often get such questions asked like this any more, but in the midst of sorrow, we often are forced to ask the big questions. The big question right now is “Where is God?” Christians are poised to begin a great dialogue with the wider community, but we are often paralyzed by our own misunderstandings and theological biases.

If you were to ask a good Israelite during the Old Testament era, “Where is God?” he or she would, without hesitation, refer you to the Holy of Holies, whether that was in the Tabernacle or the Temple, depending on what point in time you were asking. During the time of the Gospels, after the disciples finally came to the realization of just what sort of man they were dealing with, if you would have asked them, “Where is God?” they would have pointed to Christ.

The question is not simply about the realm in which God exists, on what plane He resides, but is pointed, asking where He is in our own lives, and many Christians simply do not have adequate responses. The Temple has been destroyed, and Christ has ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father. So, where is He amongst His people today?

Like it or not, we are being asked, “Where was God?” and many Christians fumble for an answer, or we go on the defensive. However, we don’t need to search for the answer, nor do we need to come up with elaborative excuses for God’s absence. We can do as the Israelites and the disciples did; we can rely on the doctrine of tabernacling and point to the location in which God chooses to tabernacle amongst us today.  In the Old Testament, God dwelled in the Holy of Holies. In the Gospels, God was present in Christ Jesus, and now, where is He? Where does He tabernacle?

The New Testament is crystal clear about God’s tabernacle in the Church Age. God dwells in the hearts of His children. The answer to the big question is as simple as pointing to your heart. But, for some reason, we fumble for the right theology. We ignore the theology of God’s dwelling place. Why? Because it says something so profound about each of us that it is often too scary to face. Instead, we wish to deflect the issue away from our own responsibilities.

Instead of being the epiphainic presence of Christ, we overemphasize another theological truth, and we distort this truth so that it eclipses God’s presence in our lives and makes our human existence a bit easier to live, away from the scrutiny of the world. We lean on our own sin. We focus on the cliché: “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” Really? Is that really all God has for you? Is that really all God thinks of you? While there is truth in this statement, we, the very children of God, say it as if we are worthless and have nothing to show for being redeemed.

Have you heard a Christian say, “Don’t look to me for an example. I am merely a sinner, and I will disappoint you.” Let me say this. If this is your attitude, then you will be a disappointment, for you have allowed sin to have too big a place in your new life that is supposed to be hidden in Christ and led by His Holy Spirit. But, we are not to serve two masters. The idea that you do not represent something of God and His holy character as a Christian is bad theology. It is too small, too weak. Get rid of it. Unfortunately, it seems this is the theology of most in our nation. No wonder we now have to fight to be missional.

The Scripture's call upon our lives is much different and even in opposition to this more modern, nominal and domesticated “Christian” response. Instead of telling us that we are simply sinners covered by Christ, as if He is simply spiritual Febreze, the Bible tells us that we are made new: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (II Corinthians 5:17) The Bible does not simply tell us that one day, in the great beyond, we will be made different. We are different now. What we once were, the old, sinful self is dead. Therefore, we are not warranted to simply say, “I am just a sinner.” Again, that is bad theology. You are not just a sinner; you are a new creation. You are His child. You are worth so much more than you give yourself credit for.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (II Corinthians 5:14,15, 20,21)

Paul is sharing with us our true identity and the implications of being given such an identity. We are persons who have been purchased by Christ through His sacrifice. As such, we do not have the right to live as we wish. We have no excuse to give into our old self, for that old self died with Christ. We are now His, and He has given us a duty to carry the ministry of reconciliation. We are His ambassadors. We represent Him. Our plea to the world to not look at us as examples is antithetical to the very call of Christ and the reason He hung on the cross for your life.

The Bible tells us that we are His ambassadors, the very persons people are to look to when they want to know more about God and His character. Therefore, we cannot allow sin to have the place we have given it. We must be on guard. This newness of life is not simply a passive thing that is obtained and complete at the moment of salvation. It is something we have to work for, something Christians, who have been saved by the free gift of God by grace and through faith, are moving towards:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (Philippians 3:10-16)
Paul is speaking of the life of Christian growth, also known as the doctrine of sanctification. We are called to be different, and we must always move forward. In some sense, as we saw in the passage from II Corinthians, we have been made new. So, Paul tells us to “live up to what we have already obtained.” In other words, do not make excuses for your sins. Live in newness of life. But, realize that God is not done. He has more to do in your life.
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.
That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24)
Again, we are called to leave behind our excuses and come to realize that we are to “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
This is not the message of today’s church, and we are providing a terrible witness because of such. We struggle to find God ourselves, because we live in the sins that should have no real reign over our lives. We do this because we misunderstand the purposes of Christ’s gift. We often think He simply died so we do not have to die ourselves. But, He died for so much more. He died so that we could be His workmen. He died so that we could be made new and could bless the world by our being made in His image.
Personal reflection opportunity:
How have you viewed the place of sin in your life? Has it paralyzed your witness? Are you allowing God to make you new? Have you put off the old, sinful desires of the flesh and put on the new creation?
As you ask yourself these questions, read the words of Paul that I emphasized above and ask yourself, “Have I been listening to this part of the Scripture’s calling upon my life, or have I just bought into the domesticated church’s version of my worth?”
Balance the truths of our sinfulness and our newness. While we are not completely rid of the old self at the moment we accept Christ, it has no more power. It is dead. We only give it power when we do not live in His truth, in the newness of life. We must be on our guard not to fall into our old ways, but we do not need to allow our acknowledgment of the dangers of sin to keep us from moving forward and being His real presence to a lost and hurting world.
Here, for your convenience, are the emphasized portions of Scripture from Paul in II Corinthians 5, Philippians 3, and Ephesians 4:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here… Christ’s love compels us…we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us…in him we might become the righteousness of God…I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me… Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal… All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things… live up to what we have already attained… you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking… Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity… That, however, is not the way of life you learned… You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted… be made new in the attitude of your minds… put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Thoughts on Reaching the Lost:

I apologize for any type-os about to board the plane and don't have time to proof... 

Right now I am sitting in the Durango Airport reflecting upon my long weekend on the Navajo Reservation. I came out here for our Christmas Mission and Pastor Training program. My main task was to teach for several hours on Saturday. The topic at hand: Repentance. Part of the reason Becky, the head evangelist at Pure Water Ministry, and I chose the topic of repentance was to stress the need for a change of heart, a want to allow God to make us different. Sometimes these churches do not see much need to evangelize to the lost, to preach, “Repent and believe,” and are instead more comfortable serving their own body. Can any of us relate? In light of the lack of outreach, it was our task, our calling, to go and share the news of God’s giving to us His ministry of reconciliation (see 2 Cor 5).

With the call to serve the lost on my mind, and not simply at a simmer mind you, I began to read Jesus’ three back-to-back parables about the lost in the Gospel of Luke (15:1-24). The whole reason Jesus is telling these parables is in response to those Pharisees and Scribes whom seem disgusted by the fact that Jesus would fraternize with the sinners, those these religious leaders perceive to have low moral standards.

As I read this, I am reminded of how easy it is for humans to fall into hidden hypocrisy. When reading Jesus’ attacks upon the religious leaders of the day, it is easy for us to try and tag team with Jesus. In our minds we say, “That’s right, Jesus. You get ‘em,” never seeing our own prejudices in the attitudes of the Pharisees. We see a little bit of the Pharisaical nature in others around us, but never in ourselves, and that, makes us really Pharisaical if you ask me.

In the spirit of repentance, let me confess something to you. I am Pharisaical at times, perhaps often. No, I am not the most legalistic person in the world, but the Pharisees were not simply the focus of Jesus anger for one reason, but many. Like the Pharisees, I find it easier to hang out with like-minded religious persons like me. I do not often enjoy hanging out with those persons who embody what it means to be lost. When I say hanging out, I do not simply mean being in the same vicinity as I serve them, but actually investing my life in them.

We often idealize the lost, and that is easy from afar. But, if you spend much time with a variety of unbelievers, which Jesus certainly did, you will most likely, like me, find yourself unnerved at times. Not all the lost are happy to be sought after. Like the Pharisees, I find it much easier to speak about my faith with those who already believe as I do, but Jesus had a different tactic. He sought to speak about His Father, not with the righteous, but with the lost. (A quick reminder: He did not do it alone. He did it with the twelve. We do not have to go on our own)

But, Jesus did not simply seek to preach to the lost. He was not content speaking at them, but wanted to speak with them. He did not simply (I stress simply) serve them at a programmed event. He was not content with having brief contact as the needy were shuffled through a line, but wanted to spend time with the lost. He was kind to them. He celebrated with them. He sat and had meals with them. While in our humanistic fear we might hear the call to preach to the lost, and we might begin to think of simple loopholes. Some might envision a ministry where the individual can simply  “preach at” the lost, a get in and get out sort of game. Again, that was not Christ’s example. He was kind. He spent real, meaningful time with the sinners. He did not simply buzz in with a quick word or a hand out (that is often our tactic to check off the “I spent time with the lost” check box).

As I sit here, my human side, my fearful side, cries out, “Jesus, why did you have to be so kind. Why can’t I just get in and get out.” I read through the parables to see if I could find an answer there, but it was not explicit. There are probably several angles my mind could have taken to find the proper answer to this, but I could not help but focus on the parable of the lost sheep. The sheep wonders from the fold, and the shepherd goes off to find the lost one. The parable began to expand in my mind.

I don’t know much about sheep. They might be extremely easy to lead back to the fold. But, I do know a few things. First, I do have experiential knowledge of trying to wrangle in a wondering animal. It is not always easy to get to the animal that is wondering away. Have you ever had a dog run away from you? Each time you get just within reach, the dog runs off (perhaps this is why a common Jewish term for gentiles during the time of Christ was “dogs.” Perhaps we are seen as stubborn—by the way, I know this isn’t really the case, but there is a parallel at times). Second, I know that the sheep in Jesus’ parable are representative of people, and people are very stubborn creatures. Finally, I know that just like yelling at a dog to come back is not the best solution most of the time (there are exceptions), being anything other than kind to the lost is going to be at detriment to our testimony.

Calling people to repentance through the ministry of reconciliation is our primary call, but, I have seen in my self, in churches at home, in churches on the reservation, a pattern that must be fairly universal: The fear of reaching out. It is not something we are often comfortable with. We hold seminars and workshops on reaching the lost. We preach on the importance of reaching out. We start initiatives to be more evangelical, but we often simply do not follow through.

First, we must realize that our comfort is beside the point. We are not our own. We are His to do with what He wills, and He wills that we carry the ministry of reconciliation out unto the world. Second, perhaps we simply need a better perspective. Christ did not have a step-by-step initiative or a program that he scheduled into His weekly or monthly, or bimonthly calendar. He simply befriended the lost, and He celebrated with them. He showed them that life with Christ is something to be celebrated, a reason to break bread in and of itself. Their invitation was personal and celebratory. It was not drudgery.

As I encourage others to reach out to the lost, God is renewing my heart and mind towards the ministry of reconciliation. Will you join me?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Election Day, November 6, 2012: A Victory for The Church

Facebook is a wonderful resource for gathering informal, social research, and on November 7, 2012, the day we found out Barack Obama was reelected to four more years in the White House, I think what I saw in my newsfeed was the birth pangs of something wonderful, an emerging disillusioned community.

While many people are bitter now, I think many faithful people will find themselves being strengthened by all of this. After seeing the reactions of many older conservative Christians in the days after the election, I have begun to think that perhaps many of this older church generation are coming to feel something that many younger Christians have been feeling for some time now.

Perhaps we did not arrive at these feelings by the same means, and perhaps the means are in conflict in some significant ways. The outcome, nonetheless, might bring solidarity between the younger and the older generations in an interesting way.

There exists a lot of talk from the older conservative Christian community (CCC) suggesting that this election has revealed something about this nation and the population that makes it up. But, more than revealing something to the CCC about the nation (that it is decidedly not a Christian nation) I am hoping that the election will reveal to the CCC something about the CCC’s purposes, and I think it has.

That the nation has not agreed with the values of the CCC has led many of this community to see this election as a sign that the people have failed us and that this is the end of Christian values and basic morality being considered and executed by the government. In other words, many of the CCC are making noise that they might be giving up on taking back our country for God and the whole failing (or is it failed) Christendom project.

Let me say this. I do not, as of yet, wish to fully discredit the fact that the United States was largely a Christian nation in which many of its leaders considered many Christian principles in developing the nation, but, at its best, it has always been a mixing of two institutions, church and state, some decisions perhaps being made for the best interest of the church, but some decisions certainly being made for the best interest of the state, not that the two are always mutually exclusive. The two were never synonymous, but the overarching Christendom project in America led many a Christian to assume the two were synonymous, whether this was warranted or not.

In the end, whether it could have gone another way or not, this Christendom project has led to a domestication of the faith in which the church takes a back seat to social issues (because supposedly the Christian government will handle all issues rightly) and evangelism is largely something done within the church walls (because suppsedly there is really no one to evangelize to other than perhaps the wayward Christian, since everyone in the nation is Christian).

These realities have led to unneeded difficulties for my Church generation. In a world where Christendom is falling apart and postmodern pluralism is producing people who are not just indifferent to Christianity, but are creating a push back, my generation has to make up lost ground.

Engaging with the world in social issues and in evangelism to the lost outside the walls of the church are realities that were never modeled for us. We are having to create anew a body that will engage in seeing justice done when the government fails us and a body that will stand up to real opposition to those in the world who hate us and are not ashamed to say so. We are having to rediscover what it means to love and fight for our enemies.

Because of the issues we have faced in the wake of the faith’s domestication because of the Christendom project, many of my generation have never really cared for the older generations focus on Christendom. Instead, we have placed all our cards, not in a blended effort of church and state, but in the church, in the community of believers. (For more on this sort of thought, see my previous two blog posts).

This is not to say that the church does not engage in politics, but it is to say that we do not place our faith in that project. We do not see our victories in elections. We call governments to task, but we also hold the faith community accountable to see justice and mercy displayed to the poor and marginalized.

Unfortunately, many of us feel as if we have been banging our heads against the wall with the older branch of the CCC.   Many of us feel misunderstood. While liberalism in the church has often tried to engage in social projects without so much as a nod to Christ, this is not how all of us who are concerned with social issues wish to practice our hopes, social or otherwise, through the church. Unfortunately, many of an older conservative branch have reacted to liberalism by disassociating with social projects altogether and have instead wished to see social morality dealt with in the political sphere. Hopefully, this is about to change. The Facebook posts sure do seem to suggest so.

In the wake of the CCC’s disillusionment, perhaps the last vestiges of Christendom will fall.  I hope that the CCC really does realize now that the project of seeing the government execute their dreams and to uphold their morals is a failed project and that our only true hope in a human community lies in the church, with Christ as its head.

This is not to discredit the past, but it is a call to move forward. Many are now admitting that they are not going to see their world impacted by a benevolent and moral government. So, they are left with one hope. If state fails us, we are left with the much more lasting church. I hope that all the efforts to see good done in the world will shift from primarily being about a vote to being about acting as the church.

For many of the younger generation of the Church, the Christendom project in the United States has been an unfortunate, residual reality that has slowed us down in our Kingdom pursuits. Now that the CCC sees the nation as too far gone, perhaps they will leave the project to die and will join us in seeing our values and ethics being executed, not by a worldly nation white washing our own tombs, but by a living and vital church.

To the older generation who has become disillusioned by this election, you have two options. One, you can give up and just wait for the end, or, two, you can shift your hope from the government and towards the church. I hope you will choose the latter. She is the bride of Christ, worth fighting for. She is His hands and feet. She will persevere, and the gates of Hades will not defeat her. This is a time of purging in the church. Many young people are giving up on her and moving towards a postmodern pluralism that fights against the church. I think the church will only grow stronger. With greater challenges and greater persecution, the church grows ever greater in strength. This is an exciting time.

Do not allow your disillusionment to squelch your imagination of hope; instead, shift your hope to the Church.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Why We Should All Be Concerned With Social Justice

            More on the politics of the Kingdom of God

To my friends in the Church, both of the left and the right,

We all must concern ourselves with the justice of the Kingdom, the justice that seeks restoration in the midst of brokenness, and we should be concerned for such restoration in the world, not least for the sake of our own hearts.

In the height of the political season, there exists much conversation on the condition of social justice and human rights within our nation. Both sides hurl insults at each other, each assuming that their policies are more considerate than the policies of the opposing side. The right often suggests that too much giving causes an entitlement mentality, and the left often suggests that the government has a blind responsibility for redistributing wealth, no matter the cost. One side (right) runs the risk of villainizing the poor by suggesting that they simply live in squalor because of their own choices, which is often more of a reaction to the left than to real experiences with the poor, while the other side (left) runs the risk of self-righteously redistributing their own moral responsibility by legislating that people who they see as “rich” take on the responsibility of seeing justice done. At their worst, both sides run the risk of blinding themselves to the plight of the poor.

The issue is much bigger than I will be able to address in this post; so, I know that what I am about to say might seem idealistic and naive, but I am not claiming that what I want to suggests is the great answer to social injustice. I simply want to say something very specific and practical. First of all, we should all recognize that there are marginalized people in this world (and even in our United States) that suffer by no fault of their own. We have an obligation to help. Second, once we see the plight for what it is, we cannot simply legislate a solution to a slow and inefficient government that can only provide by taking from others as it sees fit. In other words, we all must act.

There is a learning opportunity that will be available to us when we loosen on our narrow solutions. For the people to the right, avoiding the extreme means dropping the ancient prejudice that all suffer due to their own sins (John 9:2). Such recognition will make people a more active and caring community who uses our great privileges to benefit others. For the people to the left, avoiding the extreme means dropping the modern prejudice that big government is the great hope for human progress (Matt 6:33). Such recognition will make our efforts more affective by being direct answers to the issues of poverty.

As I get to my main point, I must say this. I am not suggesting that the person of the right or the left are inherently guilty of the extremes, but it seems that we are in a season of extremes, of reactionary motives. In the end, this is a call for persons of the right and the left to avoid blinding themselves to the poor, whether by denial or delegation of personal responsibility to the government.

I say all of this to say the thing I have wanted to talk about this whole time. What will happen when we take personal (and communal/Church) responsibility so that we are directly in contact with the poor: We will learn a hard lesson. What is this lesson we will learn? We will learn we have turned a blind eye to the poor for so long because the poor are often very difficult to serve. Just as the affluent has the tendency to move to extremes, so too do the poor.

When you actually reach out to the poor with what you see as a great and restorative hand, a solution that might just get them back on their feet, you will find many do not want it. Many will take your grace and mercy and abuse them. Many will exploit you, just as they exploit the government right now.

So, why help? While there are certainly many levels to this answer, I want to talk of a practically spiritual answer. First, we learn something of what it means to be merciful as God is merciful. Just as He offers a helping and restorative hand to the lost (and therefore, spiritually poor) world and is rejected time and time again, so too will we find that some perversely choose their poverty, as we might have always assumed, but that has not stopped God and shouldn’t stop us. We learn the personal worth of love as we feel the sting of having that love thrown back in our face. Second, the reward is great when finally we are able, by God’s grace, to help a person find restoration. After rejection after rejection, when grace is finally accepted, our hearts will rejoice more than they would if everyone we met simply took what we have to offer.

Therefore, serving the poor becomes an experience of sanctification, becoming more like God through experiencing something of what He experiences as He reaches out to all of us in love. Through loving the often unlovable, we come to better appreciate God’s relentless pursuit of each of us in our own rebellion, and through actually being a part of the restoration of a few, we begin to understand the joy God has in restoring each of us.

To those of the right, I know today is a day of disappointment, but it is not time to give up. Even while the government has taken a different path, people still should move to see their convictions being actualized in the world around them. Your duty does not end when you are out voted. You still have personal strength and means to see great things happen.

To those of the left, I know today is a day of victory, but the battle has not been won. Even while the government has taken your desired path, people still should move to see their convictions being actualized in the world around them. Your duty does not end with your convictions being legislated to the government. You are not off the hook. You still have personal responsibility to restore. You cannot simply make it someone else’s problem.

To us all: Be the Church.

Bright blessings,

Rev. Tab M. Miller

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hey, Church, Let’s Talk Politics

A few weeks ago I noted on that great social media outlet, facebook, that I was not one to broadcast my political opinions via the impersonal Internet. Today, I am going to retreat from that position a bit, but I won’t be uplifting the Republican or the Democratic parties, which is the real debate I want to avoid right now. Instead, I will be highlighting the political and social nature of the church.

Let me say this, the democracy that we enjoy in the United States of America is probably the best human system that we have, but it is a human system and will pass. The thought that our democracy will create utopia is misleading, that if only we vote the “right” way, we will see the world put right. Only when the Kingdom of God is consummated will we see a great restorative political system, namely the governance of God. Until then, imperfect people, including you and me, will operate all worldly systems, even our best of systems like democracy.

When someone mentions the social nature of the church, others often gasp, and often for the right reasons. Many issues of social justice that have been taken on by various segments of the church (mainly the left side) have done so in the wrong spirit and by the wrong means, a topic I will return to presently. However, before speaking of the proper and improper social engagement of the church, I must say this. Those who gasp at the idea of social justice, or better yet, social holiness (mainly the right side), have often gone in the opposite direction, making faith all about the private and individual life, ignoring our social responsibilities altogether.

That position is so confusing to me, especially since the religious right is often so bold in the proclamation of faith. Consider this: As Christians, there should be no area of life in which we do not act as Christians. Whether it is eating, sleeping, laughing, voting, worshiping, whether it is mundane or extraordinary, we should be Christian. Anything less is falling short. Do not compromise your life by compartmentalizing your life. What we do in the public sphere should be guided by our identity in Christ, bottom line.

The Christian church in America has allowed the world to squelch its power in the subtlest of ways. The democratic process that so many a Christian American is proud of is the very system that snuffs out the light we are to allow to shine forth. It is the bushel basket of “civilized” Christian people, both of the right and the left. How is this so?

We make our social agenda all about voting. We expend all our efforts during this political season on telling people why we as Christians should, for goodness sakes, vote democratic or republican. We, in turn, hide behind our vote.  We say things like, “Well, if my party does not win, then it’s the end. There is no more hope.” Let me politely say: How dare you! Neither the republican nor the democratic parties are our hope. If there is a community that is to make a difference in the world, it is the church. Do not turn your back on her. Political parties come and go, but His church endures as His very public presence to the world.

The sort of dependency that the church places on secular political parties cripples us from acting. If we expend all our efforts trying to promote our morality through our vote, then we are left saying, “Well, at least I tried. Don’t blame me,” when our party loses the race.  But, is that it? Are we off the hook if the world around us, which always opposes us, wins out in the political arena of voting?

We need to ask ourselves, what is our primary identity as Christians, is it our Republican or Democratic allegiance, our Americanism, or is it our citizenship as members of the Kingdom of God. If the church has a conviction on a particular political topic, then we should not outsource our agenda to some other community. We should promote our beliefs primarily from within, taking on issues ourselves.

As James 2:14-17 points out, those things we see as injustices become our problem. If we see suffering, we not only bless the needy, but offer assistance. If we see someone involved in a situation we think is wrong, we not only point our finger; we take on the issue ourselves. We not only proclaim the truth by saying, “You are wrong.” We put hands and feet to our beliefs by saying, “Now let me carry this burden with you.” Is that not the way of Christ? What if He had come to the Earth and said, “Be better,” but did not take our injustices upon Himself? We would still be lost.

So, we speak to the would-be-mother who is considering abortion. We should not simply point our fingers and say, “You screwed up, now live with it.” No, we, as the church, are called to be God’s means of healing. We are to offer assistance for whatever is needed to bring blessing from a bad situation. We proclaim truth, “God is for life,” and then we too act as if we believe what we say. We promote life by offering the mother counseling, shelter, legal representation in an adoption process, whatever it might take; we are there until the end. Until we as the church begin to act primarily out of our community (the church), we need to keep quite on moral issues. For we are proving that we do not believe in them enough when we do not act on them as the church and instead yell at the worldly government until we are red in the face.

Should we ignore our voting privileges? No, vote away, but do not allow your vote to be your primary means of bringing justice to the world. Challenge the church both universal and local to be the hands and feet of Christ, not just His mouthpiece.

Instead, be salt and light to a lost and hurting world by being a city (a community) that lives out His good works, not through secular parties, but as the church (Matthew 5:13-16). I, for one, am glad that God’s plan is not up for a vote: We are commanded to go and to live as His people!

Now go and live as His people.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Creation Restored

In order to understand our place in history, we must have a sense of identity. This sort of understanding is under much threat in the emerging postmodern world, but is of utmost importance. We are living in a culture that is beginning to tell us that life is meaningless, that we have no real identity. How dangerous! Do you recall the first movie of the Bourne franchise, “The Bourne Identity?” The franchise started with a trilogy about Jason Bourne, a special agent found adrift with amnesia. Some fishermen pick him up, and he begins to ask the questions, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” Can you imagine what would have happened to him if he had not asked those questions?

If you have not seen the movie, I won’t spoil too much, but I need to catch you up a little. The reason Jason has amnesia is because of a special operation that has gone wrong. He is injured and is left floating in the ocean. The agency that sent him is acting without approval from the government and wishes to cover up the botched mission. Thus, they are out to kill Jason. If Jason would have gotten on the boat and never worried to ask who he was, he would not have found out he was in trouble, and the powers that be would have found him unaware and unready to defend his self.

Each human finds his or her self in a very similar situation. We are born into the world lost, and unaware of our situation. If we allow the world to tell us that we have no real story, no real reason we are adrift, besides perhaps chance, we will unwittingly allow sin to consume us. We need to know where we come from.

So, what is our identity? What has been lost, and what is at stake?

The Genesis account of our creation and time in the garden does not simply tell us about the “good old days,” about the way things were, but have been forever lost. In fact, the Genesis account is very much about the future, what we will one day have. As such, we must look to it with warm tears in our eyes, the sort of tears that warm our eyes when we remember a loved one who has passed, a mixture of grief and joy. In this, we grieve, but we hope for the day in which what has been lost will be restored. Each time we lose a loved one to death, each time we see a hungry child, each time we see disease ravaging a friend’s body, we must long for the garden. Yet, it is not a longing for a home to which you cannot return. Our longing must be accompanied by hope.

The account of our time in Eden is a story of home meant to elicit more than an argument about “how God created us.” Relocating Eden merely to the past has severely damaged our view of our story by limiting our imaginations. Christians, I urge you, please don’t allow the naysayers to control your reading of Creation. Do not always and forever read it as a textbook of mere facts, as a science that must be always defended. The Bible will do just fine without your constant guard. The greatest proof for Eden is living in hope of seeing it again one day. Take a break from the constant apologetics and the worry of how you are going to defend this or that portion of the text. Apologetics have their place, but don’t just read the text for and against others, but for and against your self. The creation account and the retelling of our time in the garden is meant to elicit emotions of lament, to break your heart in that home sick sort of way. Allow your heart to bleed. Be vulnerable and cry out to your Father in your exile, because we get to go back.

Many readers of the Genesis account seem to peer into the garden and think to themselves, “Well, that would have been nice, but we gave that up and will never see Eden again.” Perhaps such lament should be our initial reaction: We need to feel a real sense of loss. We should certainly regret that we, as a race, have given up such a home, but the ability to lament is a revelation to the deepest reality. Lament gives us opportunity to realize and regret that the way we have done things are the wrong ways of doing things. Lamenting leads to repentance, an unlearning of the habits that have put us in our present, negative situation, and repentance, the turning away from bad habits and the adopting of new, healthy habits puts us on a path to recovery, to redemption, to reconciliation, to resurrection.

For some reason many Christian thinkers look at the beginning and the end of human history as two very separate realities. God’s original intent for humanity was to live happily in the garden, and there is this assumption that after the fall, God’s plan shifted. Now, according to this new way of thinking, the children of God are supposedly meant to inhabit another realm altogether, an ethereal place called heaven that is far removed from our present home. On earth we are physical beings. In heaven, apparently, we are spirits floating about. In the garden, we were to work the soil. In heaven, apparently, we simply and literally bow in worship forever and ever.

Is this the picture the Bible really paints, or are we confused by our Western idea of heaven as a place separate from our present reality? Yes, heaven is now separate from Earth, but not naturally so. Heaven represents the presence of God. Earth used to be a place where man fully experienced His presence. Sin tore the two apart and made a gulf between His presence and our reality. But Christ makes all things new.

Yes we lament the loss of Eden, but life goes on precisely because God wishes for us to repent and turn from our ways, the ways of sin and death. Just as Israel repentance always led backwards, back home, so too does our repentance take us back. Eden is not simply at the beginning of the Bible because it is the chronological starting point. Instead, the Eden account is reporting to us what is at stake in the complex drama of human history. If Eden, which represents life and peace with God, is what we lost, for their to be a happy ending to the story, Eden is what must be restored, and Christ serves as the champion of this story of reconciliation.  When we repent and turn around, we are facing Eden, our home, our promise land.

In order to understand the story God has given us, we must understand its scope. Often persons tell the story of the Bible beginning at the fall and ending at the resurrection. It is as if the binding has fallen off our Bibles and has taken a few pages from the beginning and the end along with it. The story starts and ends with, “We have died, but, in Christ, we have risen.” But died to what, and risen to what? Unwittingly, many jump into the part all about our problems and our solution. But that focus is to center upon humanity, and we do not see God’s big picture. The drama of Scripture runs from creation to new creation. To borrow from the title of Sandra Richter’s book, the whole story we are given in the Bible is “The Epic of Eden.” Eden has certainly been lost, but not forever. We are going back. We stand in exile, but Eden is our ultimate promised land.

The idea of being lost is quite vague until we understand what was lost. To say of humanity that we are lost does not begin to bring about the sort of anguish that should be brought about in light of our fall and depravity. The real question is this: What are we lost from? For it is not just life that we lost, but a sort of life, a way of being that is difficult if not impossible to grasp by the sinful heart, but, if only glimpsed at, will create a deep and devastating longing that can last a life time. That our God is a God that would will our happiness forever is a concept that has been lost on humanity and even some Christians. But that is why we were created, and that is exactly what we threw back into God’s face when our own selfishness led to a desire for what was not ours to take.

The tree and its fruit represents more than mere disobedience; they represent a whole shift in being, a gaining of a perspective, the knowledge of good and evil, which was not really a gain at all, but a loss. We try and make the story of the tree a Sunday School, color book story, that simply suggests we did bad when we disobeyed and ate an apple that we were told not to eat. But, that is a child’s version of the true horror story. The tree represents knowledge of right and wrong. Man’s eating of the fruit is his declaration to God, “I do not trust you with guiding me into what is best for me.” I want control over my destiny. I want to decide for myself. Give me my life, Father. I won’t to live it my way.” Does that ring a bell? Does that not remind you of the prodigal? We will return to this thought momentarily.

This tree represents division between man and God. It represents a division within man himself, man who was created to desire God now, through disobedience, has taken on a new desire, a desire that leads to death, a desire for self, because God is the source of life. So, to turn from God is to turn from life. The tree represents the desire of self over God. But who is capable of lifting himself up? Strong as one may be, no one can pull himself up by his own bootstraps. We were made to be carried by God, but we chose the fruit of selfishness, which created and revealed in man a division between good, outward focused reality and evil, inward focused reality.

If the fall of man, demonstrated in the selfish act of choosing from the one tree that man was to ignore, created a division, a break in the human nature, what is the nature that we lost? We lost our inherent reflective nature of God, being made fully in His image, and this being demonstrated in the separation of man from God. And what is the nature of God, the image, which we lost? God is love. We lost love. To make our fall anything less than the loss of love is to downplay the sheer horror of what was truly given up by our transgression. This is not to say that God stopped loving us, but something even worse.

While God continues to love, we chose to set up a barrier so that His love cannot reach us and fulfill us as it once did. If God would have just given up, it might not sting so badly, but in His persistence we see the horrible reality of what sort of love we transgressed. We have tried various theologies to numb and downplay the issue. In anguish, some have suggested we really did not lose much. Some say we are merely pawns in God’s game. We shift the blame or make it trivial. But, we must face reality. We threw love back in Love’s face. How retched? But, hear the good news. We are called to return. We all are called. While love was lost, while love was stripped from Love, Love never stopped searching for the objects of His desire. While we did not want to have anything to do with Love, Love never changed. He still desires us.

In order to turn from the sin that we fell into, we must turn from self, and this is done by the grace of Love. Our own broken nature longs for redemption, a move back to Love, but we cannot tear down the barrier we set in place. All we now have is a plea to Love. Thank Love that it is the nature of love to return to the lost, to even those who have betrayed Love for spite. There is no other motive for Love, but love.

Try as we might to shift the story, we will eventually have to accept the truth that what we lost was God, what we have lost is Love. Love is at stake, not mere life, but life abundant with Love. What is at stake is God, the God of our fulfillment. He seeks us all in Love, for Love does not discriminate or show favoritism. Oh how lost we would be if Love was not loving. Praise Him.

And because God is love, He does not change His love for us. Many theologians have the faith of a servant. They are as the prodigal, perhaps my favorite retelling of the story of human history. They assume our life once back home will be different than the life we had before, just as the prodigal assumed. These people assume we no longer inherit the garden. The prodigal imagined in his mind that the father would not take him back into the home, but would give him a lesser life of service, but what did the father do, he fully restored the child. We did not forever lose Eden. Our Father calls us home, to full restoration.

Let’s look at the end of the story:

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God gives them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)
Do you recognize this place at the center of New Jerusalem, our future home? There is the river. There is the Tree of Life. And God is once again with His people in the midst of a physical reality. This is the garden. Our home. God’s plan never changed. We were to live in the garden and work with God in creation. We gave that up, but look! God continued to develop Eden. Now the garden is a city, and when all is said and done, after Earth is resurrected. What is now in heaven, the home God is preparing for us, will be brought down to Earth once more. Our home.