We Bow To What We Worship

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In moments of crisis, people will rally behind points they already agree with, but pride prevents us from graciously appreciating the other side. When emotions are so high, public debate can become like trying to reason with a drunk at the bar or a child throwing a temper tantrum. True growth requires the fertile soil of both genuine curiosity and sober levelheadedness. I haven’t seen much of either in the national anthem protests. So I’ve waited to comment, hoping things would calm.

I’ve written about this before – i.e. the tendency of people to get religious about seemingly non-religious items. But the current national anthem debate seems to perfectly illustrate this.

The Debate

The argument from those who oppose kneeling during the national anthem is that the American flag is an obvious, revered symbol of the United States’ Armed Forces. Anyone who has ever been to the funeral of a fallen veteran recognizes the prestige attached to the American flag. The flag represents a unique freedom we possess as a nation, a freedom worth dying for. Many have. And it’s disrespectful to fail to recognize those who have fought so sacrificially.

The concession that’s made on this end of the debate is that ethnic inequality is totally inappropriate, but that this simply isn’t the venue to express that sentiment.

On the other side, the argument from those supportive of kneeling during the national anthem is that we are in a country that supposedly stands for equality, but that there are real and legitimate inequalities that are currently being perpetuated. We are conscience-bound to do something about human mistreatment and with the eyes of the country watching, it’s an important platform on which to say you’re not okay with it – functioning as a voice for the voiceless.

The concession that’s made on this end of the debate is that our armed forces are wonderful, but that they’ve risked (and sacrificed) their lives specifically so that we could live in a country where we were free to express our views. In other words, what’s the point in fighting to protect our country’s freedom of expression if, in fact, our country disallows free expression.

Everyone’s “Bowing” to Something

It seems like it should be simple, but it’s a rather complicated issue. And when we offer simplistic explanations, it’s perceived as dismissive by either one or both sides.

My take, as a Christian, is simply this: If humans were truly created by God to worship God as an essential act of our humanity, then when we societally lose consciousness of God, we don’t stop worshipping, we just start worshipping something other than God. By that, I simply mean that we look to something other than the true God to give us our meaning, our hope, and our identity.

I think a possible explanation of what we’re seeing right now is that some who are in favor of the athletes kneeling might be ascribing God-level value to their ethnic status. I’m all for celebrating cultural gifts. Working in an inner-city setting, I’ve had my eyes opened to issues of systemic injustice and unrecognized privilege in ways that I previously hadn’t understood. This is an issue worth fighting for because nothing is worth fighting for if not human well-being. But I also think it’s possible to elevate cultural identity to the position of a god. If so, it’d naturally lead you to think, say, and do things that contradict the will of the true God.

I think it’s also possible that right now some who are adamantly opposed to kneeling athletes might be ascribing God-level value to their nation. We have a lot to be thankful for in our country, including our armed forces. Our freedoms are virtually unmatched against another time and place in history. This debate, as ugly as it’s occasionally gotten, can only take place in a country with this much freedom. In a different state, someone might get beheaded. That, in itself, is something to be thankful for. But I also think the 20th century was very clear evidence that nationalism run amok, elevated to the position of god (which always took place in decidedly godless countries), is a disaster.

So, it’s possible that some impassioned souls right now are bowing to their culture and some are bowing to their nation.

The other item that would never get mentioned in the media is the fact that these demonstrations are taking place during America’s new pastime – professional football. NFL ratings have taken a slight hit in recent years, but that doesn’t change the fact that with the advent of fantasy football, the NFL has become the highest grossing sport and the most watched show on TV. And it mostly takes place…on Sunday. The irony better not get lost. We haven’t gotten less religious. We’ve just gotten less religious about the true God. This has left us to pour our religious fervor into issues of cultural identity, nationalism, and recreation.

Biblically Resisting the Crowd

While many Christians are vaguely familiar with the story of “The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace,” fewer are familiar with why they were thrown into that furnace. In Daniel 3, we’re told, “King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold (Dan. 3:1)…Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do…you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up…Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.” (Dan. 3:1-6)

Everyone complied except some of God’s people who “neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Dan. 3:12)

Some might say they were protesting, but keep in mind that they were protesting because they wouldn’t bow down to anything but the real God. They weren’t protesting for their Jewish culture or their Jewish nation. They weren’t considering their people victims nor were they feeling disrespected. As believers, they simply believed they should fall to their knees before no one but God.

What Does This Mean?

I’m not certain most of us would come down on the same spot on the national anthem debate, nor do we have to. We can/should love one another even as we disagree.

One thing I think most of us would likely agree upon, however, is that if you’re a Christian, while we might fold our hands to respect the flag or take a knee in silent protest for important issues, Jesus Christ is the only one worth truly bowing down before. Consequently, we must never insinuate that our ultimate cause is ethnicity or nation, because our ultimate citizenship is in heaven and our ultimate culture is the family of God. My assumption is that this may very likely lead us to simply keep our mouths shut when a secular world gets religious about things other than the true God.

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The End of Consumer Christianity (Part II)

Last week we noted the Bible’s clear and consistent directive for believers to function together as one body, which is called a “church.” We anchored our understanding in Hebrews 10:25 “(Let us) not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.”  We acknowledged that fallen humans have a natural resistance to this. We also noted that both modern churches and modern individual Christians probably bear some responsibility for the increasing infrequency in American church engagement.

This week we’re looking at the topic positively, i.e. what the church actually IS designed to be. And to do so, we’ll once again anchor our understanding in Hebrews 10. Here we find two very important things that the church is supposed to do, both products of love, which are essentially opposite sides of the same coin.

1) Spur On

“And let us consider how we may SPUR ONE ANOTHER ON toward love and good deeds.” (vs. 24)

The Greek word here for “spur on” is παροξυσμὸν. It means a “sharp encouragement.” Sharp. It’s like getting poked. Getting poked is not fun. But it does get your attention. And it can only be done when you’re in arm’s length of someone. To “spur one another on,” therefore, means you have to be close enough to someone to know in what areas they need accountability. And you have to be close enough that you actually give them access into your life too, so that they perceive your spurring as love, not control and judgment.

Some of us have been hurt in the past, now have real trouble letting people into our lives, and have a tendency to think “that’s none of your business.” A Christian community doesn’t function that way. There’s a level of openness, closeness, and  transparency by which we can reach out and spur one another on toward growth, i.e. “love and good deeds.” And we invite others to do the same for us.

Furthermore, a spur really isn’t used to direct a creature. That’s what the bridle is for. A spur prevents a stubborn, lazy horse from just standing there. The writer to the Hebrews seems to be suggesting that the nature of the sinful flesh is that, when left to ourselves, we get spiritually lazy. We need others to keep us moving. This is the power of accountability.

What’s embarrassing to me is that much of the modern secular world seems to understand this far better than the church today. Why do you think Weight Watchers is such an effective weight loss program? Why do you think Alcoholics Anonymous is such an effective rehab program? Why do you think CrossFit, explosively popular, is such an effective physical fitness program? With all due respect to CrossFit people, is CrossFit effective because people can’t, on their own, find boxes to jump up on for less than $250/month??? The power is in the peer accountability. The modern western world is increasingly rejecting individuality for the sake of communal accountability and guess who was telling us to do this 2000 years ago?

2) Encourage

But it’s not just intense and sometimes painful accountability that we need from fellow close Christians. We each need to be part of a body of believers because we also need gentle encouragement too. “(Let us) ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (vs. 25)

The Greek word here is παρακαλοῦντες – it means to come alongside someone and call out to them. It’s comforting. It’s tender. It’s actually the same word (Paraclete) used sometimes for the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. But to really encourage someone you need to know them well enough to know what fears, guilt, etc., they’re really struggling with. Furthermore, to truly encourage someone, you have to be so close to Christ yourself that when you minister to your friend, you’re not merely offering your best advice, but it is the Spirit of Christ living inside you ministering to them.

What does this mean?

Modern western individualism is constantly driving us deeper into ourselves. The sinful nature in us also focuses us inward upon ourselves. This is the road to death. When left to ourselves, we fall apart. Literally. Sin is the human heart turned inward upon itself. And “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23) Our bodies fall apart, i.e. decay, upon death as a physical manifestation of what sin does. Sin makes everything fall apart.

Our world is losing a consciousness, or at least a value, of God’s presence. Does anyone really need any convincing that the world in its present form falling apart right? Charlottesville and North Korea are not the result of too many people comprehending the glory of God. They’re the result of people completely lacking consciousness of a Creator (design), Redeemer (grace), and Judge (consequence).

Without God’s intervention, by his Spirit, in his people, i.e. without God’s presence, the world falls apart.

Without God’s intervention, we would have fallen apart – if Christ had not gotten involved with us, died and risen from the grave in our place, we would be left for dead in our sins. But Christ DID come for us. Christ DID rescue us from the sins that would’ve torn us apart. And now, in the era of the Spirit, God now lives in his Church. Consequently, if we don’t have other Christians interacting with us in meaningful ways, it’s basic logic that we should absolutely anticipate that our spiritual lives will fall apart.

And let me take it one step further. When Jesus calls believers the “salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13) he’s saying that without Christians graciously working to his glory and for the city’s needs, a community will ultimately fall apart. And for anyone who would look to northern European “non-God-conscious” communities as near utopias to prove my point wrong, I’d simply direct you to some current thinking that I believe will inevitably rip a nation apart. Just give it time. Humanity minus God inevitably decays.

The Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 1 that in Christ, all things hold together. If the Bible is, in fact, inspired, then “ALL things” – our universe, our civilizations, our churches, and we as individuals – only get held together by Christ.

And here’s the irony: we get held together only because, for our sakes, Jesus loved us enough to get torn apart. An individual who stays just an individual will ultimately end up alone forever. That’s hell. Jesus was more than just a mere individual. He was an equal person in the relational Triune God, but he became hellishly alone on the cross, so that we who’ve tried to live as individuals would be held together as family forever. To the degree we understand that, we will start living with fellow believers more as a family each day…and we will work to adopt more and more brothers and sisters into this Christian family.

I understand that quite a few people have felt burned by their church before. This shouldn’t surprise us when we understand that churches are filled with sinners saved only by grace. If you’ve ever been hurt by “the church” before, I’m asking you to let that go – to forgive just as God, in Christ, has forgiven you (Eph. 4:32). And I’m asking you now to help create the church that you always hoped the church would be – Jesus as our head, believers living together as a fully functional, healthy, transparent, and interdependent body, showing a more beautiful way, the grace of God, and the Savior who is the only medicine for this world’s sickness.

The End of Consumer Christianity (Part I)

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Today, many self-identified Christians have largely stopped meeting together.

If you’ve listened to any church leadership podcasts or read any books/research on American worship patterns, you realize that we’ve encountered a “new normal” with church engagement over the past 20 years. Our society is opting out.

This isn’t a completely new issue for the Church. The writer to the Hebrews said, “(Let us) not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” (vs. 25) Somewhere around the mid-60s AD, what appears to have been happening is that some of the Hebrews were giving up on gathering for weekly worship. “Hebrews” is a New Testament term for Jewish converts to Christianity who had, by and large, maintained a lot of their Jewish cultural practices, but who were wrestling with how their new Christianity was different from their former Judaism. A big part of Jewish ceremony was the Sabbath Day regulations. The Sabbath Day was a day of rest and “meeting together” for worship. Consequently, when Jews converted to Christianity, there was this question of to what degree “meeting together” was still necessary since there was no longer officially a scheduled worship day. Some of them thought, “Great! No Sabbath day! That means free day. I get an extra day to work or vacation or whatever else I want.” So the writer of the Hebrews has to remind them, “No, God’s people, don’t stop meeting together!”

Millennials, by a pretty significant margin, attend worship less than any other generation. Only 27% attend religious services weekly. When you account for the fact that we know religious self-reporting is generally over-reported by double, this means that probably somewhere around 14 of every 100 Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 are engaged in church life on a weekly basis. The odd thing is that the research also shows that, according to their own self-attestation, Millennials are almost no less spiritual. In other words, just as many of them believe in God, almost as many pray regularly, and almost as many believe in heaven and hell according to the Pew Research Data. This tells us their reaction is NOT against the concept of God per se, or spiritual disciplines, or doctrine. Their reaction is against…the modern American Church.

Now, there’s probably several reasons for this. I don’t mean to oversimplify. But I also don’t want to allow stalwart churchgoers to miss the point by saying that younger adults are just “godless.” That’d be 1) statistically untrue, 2) condescendingly dismissive, 3) inopportunely missing the occasion for necessary self-reflection. In other words, to that last point, it’s probably time the Christian Church takes a good, long look in the mirror and asks whether or not we are presenting an accurate and compelling vision of the Kingdom of God – the one Christ designed his Church to be.

I would certainly suggest the American church itself shares some of the blame for young America’s spurning.

Church’s Fault

I’m afraid that the idea of “church” in the past 50-75 years has become the idea of a production and consumption of spiritual commodities. And if so, upon the dawn of the digital age, this has then rendered “meeting together” useless. Here’s what I mean. If “church” to you is listening to a message. Guess what? I can get great messages at home…online. Christians can find a preacher online smarter than their pastor, funnier than their pastor (well, mine can’t, but in general… 🙂 ), more insightful than their pastor, or more moral. If theological tradition is what is most important, it’s possible, for instance, to find a more “Lutheran-sounding” Lutheran. Point being, if you’re part of a church primarily to hear a message, there’s no reason to belong to a church. You can get that online. Furthermore, the exact same thing can be said about music. In other words, we’re a consumer-minded culture. And if church is merely a collection of commodities you consume, you don’t need to be a member anywhere for the same reason I don’t need to go to the mall anymore…I have Amazon Prime.

I think we pastors and worship leaders, for a long time, have believed that producing good commodities (sermons and songs and studies) has been the extent of our leadership, the measuring stick of whether or not we are quality ministers. In reality, I think we we’re supposed to be discipling and shepherding and compelling church members into a collective, church-wide local mission.

So, am I suggesting something like a sermon in a church service is worthless? Granted, I’m a little biased, but no, not at all. The blessing of a sermon by a local pastor is he knows you. You can find a smarter, more insightful preacher online, but you can’t find someone who BOTH 1) studies God’s Word intensely, AND 2) knows your struggles and applies it to your particular life circumstances. Sermons and worship music for the church are RELATIONAL proclamation of an objective Word. It speaks into your life directly. But that doesn’t change the fact that “church” is not primarily about consuming messages.

So, yes, the church should probably shoulder some of the blame for America’s declining interest in church. We’ve commoditized spiritual content, told people to consume it, and called it “church.” That’s an issue.

Individual’s Fault

On the other hand, I think every individual Christian probably shoulders some blame for simply mimicking the individualistic patterns of our culture. We’ve become a people so focused on self-comfort and self-convenience, that we treat our spiritual lives as though they’re simply one more aspect of our lives. What does this mean? Virtually every other aspect of my life I do at my own personal convenience. This generation doesn’t have to go away to school, it can go to school online when it wants. This generation doesn’t have to watch The Cosby Show at 8:00pm on Thursday evenings on NBC…when it comes on. We can binge watch shows online, when we want. On demand. We don’t have to shop when the stores are open, we shop online, it’s convenient for us.

So, understandably, modern believers have concluded that we can do our spiritual lives at our own personal convenience too. Here’s the problem: we’ve forgotten that we live in the New Testament Era, the Spirit Era, where God is met by interacting with the people he lives in by his Spirit. Post Pentecost, without knowing other Christians in deep and meaningful ways, you cannot really know God. (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; 2 Tim. 1:14; Eph. 5:18; Rom. 8:9,11; Gal. 4:6)

There Is No Christianity Outside of the Church

Not only can you not know God on your own, but you cannot obey God on your own. When someone gives up meeting together with the body of believers, when you try to foster a relationship with God on your own, it’s impossible to carry out one of the most common New Testament biblical directives, which is to “one another.”

In You and Me Forever, author Francis Chan puts it like this:

“Consider this: the phrase ‘one another’ is mentioned 59 times in the New Testament. Fifty-nine times, the writers of the New Testament give us commands that we cannot obey without turning to another member of the church and demonstrating the character of God. It’s impossible to ‘one another’ yourself; it’s impossible to ‘one another’ in your heart. These ‘one another’ commands require us to demonstrate the gospel with others.

While Jesus was on earth, HE revealed God to the world. But now He has formed the CHURCH, given us His mission, and empowered us through the Holy Spirit. It’s our job to reveal God to the world through the way we live together.” (You and Me Forever, pg. 56)

In The Rise of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark says this beautiful “one-anothering” was what created the platform for gospel proclamation and the explosion of the New Testament Church. He writes: “alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another.” (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, pg. 86) Stark is saying the unbelievers, the other-religious people of the New Testament Era, all thought you could appease your god(s) simply by having a personal relationship with that god(s) – making sacrifices, praying, and doing good moral acts. While the early Christians would have agreed with some of that, they knew that if we’re going to truly know God, we have to have a close relationship with the people He indwells.

If we want to be Christians, we cannot do it independently. We have to do this together. It’s not us about getting content we like at our own personal convenience – that’s my Netflix account. Church is about God’s people graciously functioning together with Jesus as their head to advance His Kingdom.

(This week I looked at the negative side – where churches have gone that I wish they hadn’t – namely, conditioning a consumer mindset. Next week I’ll tap into more of what Christ designed his Church, and therefore local churches, to be.)

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Structural Injustice and Why Christians are the Obvious Candidates to Help

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I received an email from our school superintendent the other day that read: “I am deeply saddened to report the passing of Dontrae Henning, a beloved member of the class of 2010. Dontrae was killed by gun violence while sitting in a car on Monday night.”

Now, very little is known about the circumstances that led up to this tragedy. But at intense moments like this, people understandably want to ask, “Whose fault was this?”

Traditional liberalism tends to say “It’s the corrupt system’s fault.” Traditional conservatism tends to say “It’s the broken family’s fault.” In other words, everyone always thinks it’s someone else’s fault. While there certainly is blame, I’m fairly confidant that sitting around and assigning blame is unproductive. What I do know is that, like every other 17 or 18 year-old, I made many foolish choices by that point in my life too. And yet I never once felt as though any of those foolish choices would lead to me sitting in a car one night and getting my life taken. What that means is that I was afforded a level of grace by God – a grace of safe living conditions, grace of a loving family unit, grace of a Christian upbringing, grace of quality education and abundant life opportunities – graces that many others are simply not afforded, at least to the same degree.

Now I have no reason to feel guilty about the blessings I received. But it’d also be inappropriate to fail to recognize those blessings for what they were, GRACE. The spiritual blindness of the human condition leads us to take more credit than we deserve. This is the reason why everyone who wins an award first remarks, “I worked really hard.” While they may have worked hard, it’s dismissive of the efforts of others to say you won simply because you worked the hardest. It ignores good fortune and positive circumstances. It ignores God’s interventions. Put differently, the Christian response to blessing would NOT be to say, “I earned this,” nor to throw my hands up and say, “I guess I got lucky!” Instead, the reborn response to good fortune would be to ask, “How do I bless others with the grace afforded me?”

So, for instance, in Milwaukee, we have thousands of kids who by the age of 17 or 18 have almost no marketable skills. They have almost no trajectory of healthy social productivity. Author Matthew Desmond did a remarkable job laying this out in his best-selling book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Make no mistake, this is a Christian responsibility. Why is social brokenness a Christian responsibility, you ask? Everyone has gods, but Christians are the only ones with a God of grace. Consequently, Christians are the only ones who can who have the resource of grace themselves to apply grace, undeserved love.

Yes, secular people can throw money at stuff. Yes, secular people can demonstrate social activism. But only someone who has received Jesus Christ’s life for theirs, gifting them eternal life in paradise, will have the resource to say, “Okay, now my life for yours. I’m willing to be hurt in order to help bring your hurting to an end.” On the other hand, if you believe this life is all there is and that the highest goal of this life is your own personal comfort (the highest pursuit of the modern western person), you will never live like that.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of structural injustice I’ve ever heard was presented in Divided by Faith, written by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. They create a parable in the book that goes something like this: There are two guys, Guy A and Guy B, who both need to lose some weight. They both decide to go to a summer camp to lose weight. But let’s say at Guy A’s summer camp everyone is fit. Everyone encourages you to lose weight. All the stores are health food. And all the gyms are inexpensive and popular. Now, let’s say at Guy B’s summer camp the only place to get food is McDonald’s. The one gym there is lousy and super expensive and you have to wait in lines to use machines. And finally, most of the people there are pretty out-of-shape. Now, of course there are still some important individual choices to be made and personal ownership of those decisions. It’s still certainly possible for Guy B to lose weight through discipline and willpower. But you cannot deny that it’s going to be more difficult for Guy B to lose weight at his camp than Guy A. That’s structural inequality.

blog - injustice 1Now the reason God doesn’t just give everyone a basket with an equal amount of goods in it to provide for needs is because he doesn’t desire for us to be merely dependent upon him, but also interdependent upon one another. So, he might put two sets of goods in my basket and none in another, because he wants me to share with the one who has none. In that case, we’re not only both provided for, but we’ve built relationship together. And if you’re so bold as to think that God cares little about structural injustice, that anyone who encourages Christian humanitarian efforts is merely practicing a social gospel, I’d encourage you to re-read Jesus’ haunting warning in Matthew 25:31-46. On the Day of Judgment, Christ says the litmus test for true orthodoxy will not merely be accurate doctrinal confession (i.e. “Lord”), but active social compassion.

The reality with structural injustice is that you don’t have to be an overt racist or classist to perpetuate a system that favors some ahead of others. You can participate non-consciously, which is probably most participation. We rarely recognize clear advantages when we’re the one receiving those advantages.

So, to overturn social injustice, you must have two things: 1) Someone must call your attention to social injustice; 2) You must have a compelling reason to change, even inconvenience yourself along the way.

I think it’s worth noting that in the history of believers, despite clear warnings, God’s people have occasionally been completely unmotivated to enact social justice…with painful results.

The prophet Amos’ chief mission in his 8th century Northern Kingdom ministry was to call the wealthy Israelite elite to repentance over their structural injustices. Assyria and Egypt, the understood powers of the day, had become weakened for various reasons. This enabled Israel to overtake important trade routes, resulting in a rapid influx of cash into the empire. But the financial impact was only seen by the professional class, not the working class, which created a greater class disparity. Sound familiar?

The most obvious demonstration that the nation was becoming corrupted by this wealth was the injustices taking place in the court system. Bribes were commonplace. And the victims of a system like that, almost invariably, were the widows, the orphans, the foreigners, and the poor (Zech. 7:10). By profiting off the poor, the wealthy were building their dream houses. God called them to repentance through Amos, but when they didn’t, he finally came down and said, Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.” (Amos 5:11-12) The God who positions the stars in the sky, changes the seasons, causes the rains, etc. (Amos. 5:8), he’s the one that will have final say on wealth distribution, since it all belongs to him and he controls it anyways.

So our simple filter when it comes to making life decisions and managing blessings is this: Does this honor God? Is this me first or is this you first? The reason any structural injustice takes place is because you have a bunch of people who collectively, defying God, are saying, “Me first.”

Where are you at on this? I’ll be honest with you, there’s a strong part of me that has become convicted that if, for instance, I was born and raised in the 53206 zip code, there’s more than a small chance that I’d probably be in jail right now. In other words, if you put my exact same disposition and spirit into a young man in a geographic area and cultural circumstance of high violence, poor economics, poor education, family dysfunction, and social injustice, he might very well end up in jail. What that means is I was shown some grace and blessing in circumstances. And what that then means is that with the choices and management opportunities I’m given in life, I need to bless others.

Why? Not to earn my salvation, but because by grace I’ve already been blessed with salvation. Rather, here’s your motivation for social healing: Jesus is the one who was literally on the inside of God, safe and secure inside the Trinity, but voluntarily left that comfort to come to earth and be unjustly banished outside of the holy city. Worse yet, Jesus was brutally pushed out of God’s love upon the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Matt. 27:46) But he willingly and graciously did it so that we who deserve to be cast outside for our injustices would instead be forever welcomed inside God’s family. To the degree I recognize that I am the beneficiary of his injustice, I will become a healer of injustice myself.

God now opens our eyes to injustice and to the outcasts (the victims of injustice). Don’t wait till you “feel led” to get involved. I think for many years I believed you had to feel compelled to do the things that were right in God’s sight or it would somehow be disingenuous. I’ve since learned that’s just not the way Christian maturity tends to work. Instead, a Christian walks by faith and does what is right in God’s sight, watches God work through him, and that generates the appropriate feelings.

As the Christian Church in the west continues to wane, I’m led to think that the believing communities that will last are those who best carry out fully what Jesus designed his church to be: His voice of truth, yes, but, no less, his hands and feet of compassion.

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The Christian Need to Embrace Those Different From You

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That which is different is scary. But in most cases, it’s not bad. It’s just different.

I was reminded of this when preaching on the account of the interaction between Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and Peter, the disciple and leader of the early church. All of Acts 10 is the narrative of the two being brought together by God.

Cornelius is a “God-fearer,” which is a specific New Testament technical term for a Gentile who came to believe that the God of the Jews was, in fact, the one true God, but who did not fully adopt the Jewish culture. In Acts 10, God gives Cornelius a vision to send for Peter. And God also gives Peter a vision about a wild, “unclean” buffet of animals that God wants Peter to kill and eat. Peter, always one to tell God how to do his job, responds that he would NEVER do such a horrible thing as defile himself by eating unclean meat (Acts 10:14). God then plays the trump card and says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15) Peter goes downstairs and Cornelius’ messengers show up, so Peter goes to visit Cornelius. When Peter arrives and learns the faithfulness of Cornelius and the other God-fearers there, marked especially by the obvious outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44), he says, I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35)

By saying, “I now realize,” somewhat surprisingly, Peter is suggesting that prior to this occasion, he didn’t understand that God didn’t show favoritism. In other words, before Peter witnessed a faithful, God-Fearing Gentile in action, he was inclined to believe that God was much more likely to accept some people over others based on their culture. In fact, elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Gal. 2), we learn that Peter had some latent, underlying racism – a Jewish cultural superiority complex – that God was trying to get him over.

In Acts 10, the Holy Spirit is trying to convince us then that, by nature, we struggle with the exact same problem Peter did. But we rarely realize it. Peter had no idea he was a racist until he stepped foot into the house and life of someone different from him. It’s not like Cornelius was a hardened criminal. He was a Roman centurion. Consider him something similar to the CEO of a company of a hundred employees. He’s successful, he’s highly moral, and he’s socially compassionate. The only problem is…he’s different from Peter. And different is scary, confusing, and sometimes frustrating to fallen humanity.

What Does This Mean?

I think there are several very practical lessons here about embracing a culture different from yours for the sake of the gospel. So, let me offer 3 encouragements:

Embrace someone different from you with the gospel because…

  1. Our World is Changing Demographically

Most projections over the past decade are suggesting that by the year 2050, the white population in the U.S. will become a minority (in the sense that the American population will consist of less than 50% white people). If you are like me and belong to a church body with a Lutheran theological tradition, you are at the bottom of ethnic diversity in American religion. Please understand that I’m not suggesting a church or church body should become more diverse merely for the purpose of surviving, but as white birth rates continue to drop, it is going to become exceedingly difficult for predominantly white churches to maintain numbers.

This isn’t completely unlike what was seen in the Early Christian Church. Justo Gonzalez does a great job explaining in The Story of Christianity that the church, in its infancy, existed purely of converted Jews. Gentiles didn’t start making up the majority of the church until the 2nd century. At the outset you had almost exclusively Jewish converts. But within that group of converts you had two subdivisions – the Hebrews and the Hellenists. The Hebrews maintained a rigid loyalty to Jewish customs. The Hellenists were Jews who were open to embracing Greek culture like the rest of the Roman Empire, without embracing the immorality that often pervaded the culture.

Not surprisingly, the Hellenist churches were significantly more successful at eventually converting the Gentiles, because they didn’t put cultural obstacles in the way of coming to Christ.

The basic lesson here is that it’s wise not to add culture to Christian faith.

Second, embrace a different culture with the gospel because…

2) It Fights Against Self-Righteousness

Evangelizing to people culturally different from you (which is essentially ALL evangelism), is beneficial not only for those whom you witness to, but it’s also a way by which God continues to shape you. The reason for that is because when you see someone culturally different from you demonstrate faith in Jesus, it helps clarify what the gospel is NOT. The gospel is not a language or a musical style or a haircut or a skin color. Islam certainly is. You cannot truly practice the Muslim faith without knowing the Quran in Arabic. But Christianity has no manmade defined culture. Rather, it infuses manmade culture with grace.

Screen Shot 2017-08-03 at 7.58.31 AMWhy is it so important for us to learn this? Because every sinful human heart (Peter, the Jews, and us too) unwittingly create manmade categories that we easily fit into as requirements for being “good” believers. The reason we do this is because human hearts are naturally resistant to Jesus Christ alone as our Savior (Rom. 8:7). So, if we make our own categories that put us closer to God apart from Christ, i.e. self-righteousness, we are then taking some credit for our salvation.

The benefit to you of embracing a culture different from yours with the gospel is that you then discover what biases and gospel distortions you formerly didn’t realize you had. Say, for instance, you grew up in a church where everyone wore the same style of clothes, had the same basic haircut, preferred the same type of music, and liked the same forms of entertainment. In all likelihood, you’d subconsciously develop a belief that some of those neutral things were “right” (or “righter”) than other neutral forms. You might even passionately defend that some of those neutral things are better than others. But God would say something to the effect of “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15) Consequently, when you encounter another Christian who preferred worshipping with a different style of music or wore a different style of clothes, who was just as much a Christian as you, it would confuse you a bit at first, but clarify the gospel for you. You’d realize you were likely adding manmade categories in the past and be compelled to repent of adding to Scripture (Mark 7:6-8; Rev. 22:18-19).

The basic lesson is that it’s theologically accurate to not add manmade culture to Christian faith.

Finally, embrace a different culture with the gospel because…

3) It Images Christ

What was the work of Jesus Christ? The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that a holy God who was completely unlike us came to live with us. He had everything in common with God, but he came to hang out with man. He was rejected because he was misunderstood. He was despised because he hung out with losers. And then he was killed under the worst culturally preferred torment the Romans had, crucifixion. Why? Jesus embraced you who were different from him because he loved you undeservedly, unreasonably, and recklessly. He walked into our house so that we could live forever in his. To the degree that we understand that, we will walk into the lives of people different than us with undeserved love as well.

Jesus didn’t just cross cultural borders, he crossed over from heaven to earth. But because he did, you have forgiveness for any cultural elitism, you have hope for a perfect future society of love and equality that you can start working towards today, and you have a clear path and model to serving others with the gospel.

Cross earthly cultural borders with the gospel and anticipate the Spirit coming down (Acts 10:44).

The Off Switch for Your Personal Pain

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For many of us, the pursuit of happiness is closely related to the numbing of pain. Vacations are as much about shutting off cellphones and not answering emails as they are about sunny beaches. Addictive behaviors are as much about escaping unwanted feelings as they are about the activity itself. The Bible itself even defines paradise in terms of the absence of pain – “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4) So, in one sense, salvation is the absence of our present hurt.

Though there’s obviously no shortcut to experiencing salvation, I do believe God gives us resources to mitigate unnecessary hurt in this lifetime. One of these resources is his encouragement to in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil. 2:3-4) A Christian at some point has to see that caring for others is not something we do merely because we’re naughty if we don’t, but because we’re blessed when we do. 

In the early 1900s there was a Russian physiologist by the name of Alexei Ukhtomsky, whose main contribution to the scientific community was his “Principle of the Dominant Focus.” This principle stated that when it comes to the human nervous system, the brain can only focus on that which is causing the greatest stimulation. For instance, when it comes to pain, your brain doesn’t really register consciousness of two pains simultaneously though you may experience two separate pains simultaneously. So, let’s say you have a bad headache but you also recently sprained your ankle. If on a scale of 1 to 10, your headache is like a 6, but your sprained ankle is like a 3, that doesn’t mean that you’re experiencing pain at a 9. The pain reception doesn’t stack. Your brain would only focus on the primary stimulus, the headache pain, the 6. It’s all part of God’s brilliant design.

Now since there is one God who created this integrated physical, psychological, relational, spiritual world, the principles frequently overlap. You can’t register multiple pains simultaneously.

Consequently, while it may seem counterintuitive, the fastest way to overcome one pain would seemingly be to more deeply register a different pain. Furthermore, a unique characteristic of humanity is our ability to relate to the pain of other beings despite it not being our own personal pain. We call this empathy. Practically, what this means is that the most effective way for you to get over your own pain is … to occupy yourself with the pain of others. As you concern yourself with others ahead of self, you proportionately stop feeling so much pity for yourself. If you work to meet the needs of others you will feel proportionately less discontented. Empathy can help free you from your own pain.

As someone who has battled depression at various points throughout my life, I experientially know the deep self-focus often attached to the sadness. It’d be unfair to categorize everyone’s depression, so I’ll just speak for myself. I’ve never gotten depressed when I was deeply focused on the needs of others. I have gotten depressed focusing on my own wants and desires. I have gotten depressed constantly comparing myself to others. But taking God’s advice, “not looking to (my) own interests but…to the interests of the others”, has never created a period of overwhelming sadness for me.

Show me someone who’s obsessed with themselves, whether a high or low opinion of themselves, and I’ll show you a soon-to-be miserable soul. On the other hand, show me someone who’s so convinced of Christ’s providence and sufficiency that they’ve nearly forgotten about themselves, and I’ll show you someone who’s been liberated.

My primary evidence for this is none other than the Son of God himself. Jesus was the only truly other-focused person to ever walk the planet. In fact, in his last moments, at his most piercing pain, upon the cross, what kinds of things was Jesus crying out about? He reasonably could have been crying out about his head due to the crown of thorns, or his back due to the lashings, or the injustice due to the mistrials, or the betrayal and abandonment by his closest friends. But he doesn’t cry out about any of them. Instead, concerned about his mother’s well-being, he pointed her to his friend John and said, “Woman, here is your son now.” (John 19:26) Concerned about the souls of those who were crucifying him, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) All he could think about was someone other than himself. And because he thought about you and me instead of himself, our sins of self-obsession are washed away and can’t hurt us anymore.

The more the other-focused nature of our Savior melts our hearts, the more we become like him. Believe that because he was so obsessed with you, Jesus has done everything to take care of your eternal welfare. Believe that because he’s still so smitten with you, he constantly intercedes and works to take care of you. And if that’s true, then low and behold, you find yourself with all of this extra time and money and energy available for you to invest in the welfare of others.

Filling your calendar, your budget, and your mind with thoughts of others helps you imitate Christ and experience Christ (Eph. 5:1-2). But it will also numb some of the pain on the road to happiness.

 

NOTE: By encouraging an other-focus that helps alleviate personal pain, I’m not intending to be insensitive to those who are currently going through immense personal hurt. Of course someone in the ICU is going to struggle with physical pain. Of course someone who has recently lost a loved one will appropriately experience emotional turmoil. Of course there will be some pain in life that demands our attention. I’m merely making the case for the general truth that other-focusedness is not only a command, but a blessing from God. Processing pain involves information reception and communication. And in the same way that a human can only reasonably listen to one person in a conversation at a time, that same human brain can only focus on one dominant pain at a time. God’s commands are not arbitrary – they always have blessing attached.

Feel Free to Not “Be Yourself”

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The most commonly offered advice today from parents to children is simple, seemingly profound, and almost universally unchallenged: “Be Yourself.”

In The Road to Character, David Brooks muses on this. He highlights the recent prevalence of societal self-love doctrine:

As Ellen DeGeneres put it in a 2009 commencement address, “My advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.” Celebrity chef Mario Batali advised graduates to follow “your own truth, expressed consistently by you.” Anna Quindlen urged another audience to have the courage to “honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and, yes, your soul by listening to its clean clear voice instead of following muddied messages of a timid world.” … “In her mega-selling book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that God manifested himself through “my own voice from within my own self….God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.” (Road to Character, Brooks, pg. 7)

For many years, Americans have been converting to this doctrine of self-trust.

But it now appears the tide on this advice might be turning. Adam Grant, in perhaps my favorite article from last year, wrote a fantastic piece in the NY Times called “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ is Terrible Advice.” Grant writes:

If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.

And he concludes:

Next time people say, “just be yourself,” stop them in their tracks. No one wants to hear everything that’s in your head. They just want you to live up to what comes out of your mouth.

Grant offers examples of individuals who have conducted a dangerous social experiment – doing everything they felt they wanted to do. This included the story of an author who tried for several weeks to live a completely “authentic life,” stating everything that he felt was true of himself. This meant that he told a colleague that he would have sex with her if she were single. He told his nanny that he would ask her out on a date if his wife left him. He exposed his daughter to the harsh, cold realities about the death of pets. He told his in-laws they were boring. That author eventually conceded defeat and concluded, “Deceit makes our world go round.”

Deceit as the driving force of life not only sounds sad, but I believe it’s untrue. Personal restraint and willful deception aren’t the same animal.

From a biblical perspective, it’s certainly true that encouraging “authentic selves,” i.e. unfiltering ourselves, is like streaming pure oxygen in front of a blow torch. “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” (Rom. 8:7) The most basic of God’s commands is to love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39) If you encourage your natural self, you will unquestionably nurture a “me first” self that is disrespectful to God and detrimental to humanity. A Christian, by definition, cannot practice a purely “be myself” philosophy.

And, as stated, even the secular world is beginning to admit that a level of what psychologists call “self-monitoring” is necessary, beneficial, and healthy. In fact, civilization is predicated on the idea of a collective people group who are willing to compromise some amount of self for the sake of the greater communal good. So, if you’re a bit of a lead foot, don’t be yourself in heavy traffic. If you love loud music, don’t be yourself late at night in your apartment complex. If you’re kind of a bully, please, by all means, pretend to be anybody else on the playground. Just don’t be yourself. Furthermore, as Grant points out, studies seem to suggest that high self-monitors – people who are constantly scanning their environments for social cues and adapting – generally are more likely to receive promotions, higher status, and responsibility in the corporate world. We’re beginning to understand that, to some extent, we must restrain and repress the natural self.

But how do you do this without deceit? If you have an innate desire to be me-focused, but you pretend that you are, by nature, other-focused, does that not make you an inauthentic hypocrite?

Again, the biblical perspective offers tremendous resource. The solution is not to pretend to be something you’re not (hypocrisy & deception) nor to merely “be yourself” (radical authenticity & acceptance of yourself in your current state). The secret comes in recognizing that God, by grace, has accepted you as the person the Father created, the Son redeemed, and the Holy Spirit now empowers you to be. And that person is not an authentic, independent individual per se, but an important part of the body of Christ.

Here’s the kicker. To truly be in the body, to truly become alive, you MUST die to yourself. In Christianity, life only comes after death. Resurrection only comes after burial. This is not an optional part of Christianity. It’s essential. And it’s completely alien to modern western individualism.  “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Matt. 16:25 NLT) The path to the life that really is life does not come from embracing the natural self, but killing it.

You want authenticity? Christians should be the first in line to transparently broadcast their frailties, their weaknesses, their struggles, their regrets. And yet this doesn’t psychologically break them, because their identity doesn’t come from their self-love, but in a greater verdict – the permanent love of God himself.

What kind of stability would we possess if, like John the Baptist, we were able to say, “Lord, my only pursuit is to know you and walk with you and serve you and be closer to you. I want to lose myself in you. I want to become less and you become greater. I want to fall into you, that your light would burn brighter” (cf. John 3:30)?

Furthermore, if we recognized that we are not yet finished products this side of heaven, but children whose hearts the Holy Spirit continues to operate on, we wouldn’t insist on the world accepting us (and our shortcomings) while being cut by our rough edges. Instead, we’d humbly offer our best, apologize for our faults, and demonstrate grace at the flaws of others.

It appears as though we’ve got a generational divide that still requires gospel healing. Millennials tend to perceive Boomers as deceptive, two-faced, living for appearances and hypocritically pretending to be something they’re not. Boomers tend to perceive Millennials as little monsters “being themselves” and demanding that the world think they’re wonderful. But regardless of generation or ideology, in Christianity the proud become humbled and the lowly become emboldened, because God sees every bit of your life and yet accepts you, not because you are yourself, but because he is himself.

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