Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Late have I loved you...

Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new.
Late have I loved you!

You were within me while I have gone outside to seek you.

Unlovely myself, I rushed toward all those lovely things you made.

And always, you were with me, and I was not with you.

All these beauties kept me far from you - although they would not have existed at all unless they had their being in you.

You called, you cried, you shattered my deafness.

You sparkled, you blazed, you drove away my blindness.

You shed your fragrance, and I drew in my breath, and I pant for you.

I tasted and now I hunger and thirst.

You touched me, and now I burn with longing for your peace.

St. Augustine
The Confessions (X, 27)
397 A.D.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

social justice or social gospel

I have been thinking through the church's responsibility to "the poor." As I reflect on various liberation theologies and some themes within the emergent church, I am working through some of my own thoughts on the matter.

I was in my small group the other day and was discussing what the U.S. should do for the poor, both locally and globally. One guy in my small group was really upset with corporate America and our lack of advocacy for the poor as Americans. Here was my response to him: "If we make an economically poor person into a middle-class person, we will simply be exchanging one poverty for another."

Here is where I was going with that thought. Our generation is bombarded with all kinds of messages. Two of those messages are as follows: 1) we need to help those who are materially poor in order that they can live the American dream, a.k.a. become middle-class or better 2) Middle-class America is rife with drug addictions, sexual abuse, depression and an overall melancholy and cynical attitude about life.

Holding these two truths in tandem we come to an interesting paradox. It seems that both the socio-economically poor and the socio-economically middle-class are struggling with poverty. It just that one kind of poverty is more obvious than the other.

So when we say we should “advocate for the poor” who are “the poor?” It seems to me that poverties of all kinds are all around us. And if we limit our definition of “poverty” to those who are lacking in material wealth and in educational and job opportunities, then aren’t we being “materialistic.” Meaning, aren’t we simply carrying with us a very shallow understanding of poverty.

My fear is that our desire for social justice will just become another failed social gospel. I am not convinced its enough to “be Jesus” to people without also introducing them to Him. To do so would be to fall into the first of Jesus' three temptations in the desert.

Jesus was tempted to turn stone into bread. He was tempted to become the great provider for the physical needs of Israel. And many expected as much from the long awaited Messiah. But Jesus refused this temptation, and so should we.

In the gospel of John, we do see Jesus feeding the multitudes. And yet, its as if those feedings were supposed to point to something deeper. In John 6 we see that it was not enough just to feed the people. Jesus wanted the people to understand that He was the Bread of Life. He was the manna from heaven. Their hunger, Jesus knew, was well beyond the physical. They had a deeper hunger which only Jesus could fill.

We should not be satisfied with ourselves if we as the church become masters at helping the economically poor become the miserable middle-class. Again, we are only exchanging one poverty for another. It is not enough to replace depression with materialism or desperation with greed. In our attempts at providing for physical needs, we must point people to something beyond mere physical bread. We must point them to the Bread which will truly give them Life.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

inclusive love / exclusive truth

I am reading a book by Ravi Zacharias called, "Jesus Among Other Gods." In it Ravi makes some interesting comparisons and correlations. He describes the India in which he grew up. He notes that their pluralistic and pantheistic culture led to an inclusiveness in dealing with truth claims. Every truth claim was subjective and relativistic.

But in this seemingly "open" society which was so "generous" with truth was also born the caste system. Giving love was a very exclusive thing. Your family's status was the determining factor on whether you were worthy of love. They were anything but inclusive with their offerings of love.

Ravi points out that the gospel is different. Jesus opens the doors wide to the whole world. His offering of love was and is the most inclusive pronouncement of love the world has ever seen. Every tribe, tongue and nation is loved by God. Love, in the gospel, has reached its ultimate inclusiveness.

Yet, this inclusive love is dependent on an exclusive truth. Jesus is The Way. There is no other name given to humanity by which we must be saved. Truth, in the Kingdom of God, is exclusively found in the person of Jesus. Truth is not inclusive of all points of view and all religions of the world. It is not inclusive when dealing with philosophies and worldviews. Jesus and the gospel is a radically exclusive truth claim. It is an offense to our modern and especially post-modern mindsets.

Our Western world is attempting to imitate Eastern spirituality. We look to the East and see inclusiveness in truth claims. We mistake this for love and we call it tolerance. The driving assumption in the West is one of subjectivity, relativism and a sort of modernized pantheism. Yet while we hail "truth inclusiveness" as a triumph, we ignore its by-products like the caste system.

God demands an inclusive love, but not an inclusive view of truth. The inclusive love of the Kingdom of God is made possible by the exclusivity of Truth, who is Jesus. To assume an inclusive attitude toward truth will lead to greater inclusiveness in love is backward. It's not what we see in the gospel. And it's not was has played out in places like India.

I think we can see it happening in our own time and in our own culture. The more inclusive we have become with various truth claims, the more exclusive our love has become. We swing wide the doors of relativism, yet build our relationally tribal walls. We in the West will certainly affirm anyone's "truth" so long as they don't believe it to be exclusive. Simultaneously, we count the number in our clan so as to know exactly who is "in" and who is "out." We have enough love for our own tribe of people but none for any "outsiders." If we don't see that love and truth, and their inclusiveness and exclusiveness are related, we are fooling only ourselves.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Where were you 30 years ago today?

Today is the 5 year anniversary of 9/11. Lots of TV shows, movies and memorial services are happening right now which depict the events of that day. Many of us this morning are remembering where we were on this morning 5 years ago.

I had just slept through a seminary class and woke up late. I walked down stairs in my apartment and turned on the TV. And that is pretty much where I stayed for the rest of the day. I had only just moved to Texas from Baltimore a few weeks ago. And now I watched the Northeast get attacked by our own planes.

My wife and I talked about getting the movies "World Trade Center" and "United 93" on DVD and saving them. We want our kids to know what happened that day in real time. This thought gave birth to the question of what we will be thinking 25 years from now.

The President has recognized this day as a day of service and good will. Will people being doing acts of kindness 25 years from now? How will we view this day on September 11, 2031? Will this be remembered as the beginning of a war that stretches on for decades? Will this not be remembered as the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil, but rather the first?

I am guessing our kids will ask us questions about it. It will probably be like how our parents asked our grandparents about Pearl Harbor. The difference may be that our kids will be asking about the attack that begins a war that they grow up around.

Maybe the raw footage from CNN combined with the movies will help them feel what it was like 5 years ago. But I am not sure that anything can replicate that feeling of shock and horror. Then again, the real tragedy may be that they will have a few 9/11's of their own. Maybe 25 years from now, our kids will know all too well what that kind of terrorism feels like.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

χ for Χριστός

I watched the movie "V for Vendetta" last night. If you don't know the story, a masked vigilante reeks havoc on a futuristic British government which has become a fascist dictatorship. Because of the fear of past terrorism and biological warfare, a hyper-controlling government takes over to institute order. V was a byproduct of horrific "medical" testing likened to the Nazi medical experiments on POW's in WWII. His mission was to take down the government and give the power back to the people of Britain.

There were several themes that caught my attention. In many ways, V not only becomes the messianic figure in the movie, but also seems to use some of the same subversive tactics that we see in the Kingdom of God. Here are some of the similarities that I noticed.

1. V tells his message of freedom on November 5th, but doesn't bring about the fulfillment of the message until a year later on that same calendar day. This reminded me of how Christ came announcing the inauguration of the Kingdom and yet left us, the church, in a period of waiting for its fulfillment. V was allowing a year to pass in order to get the following he needed in order for the overthrow to work. Jesus has allowed history to unfold as he gathers together people willing to manifest the Kingdom of God on earth. The final overthrow of the kingdom of the world is yet to come. In the mean time, there are breakouts of rebellion against the powers and principalities of this world.

2. There is a scene at the end of the movie where V had mailed out his mask to everyone in London. They were asked to meet him back at the parliament building the next year on Nov. 5th if they wanted to be a part of the "new created order." As the night of the 4th came to a close, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets in front of parliament. And they all were wearing the same mask as V. In a sense they took on the clothes, identity and image of V. This rings true of the Kingdom. We don't wait for Christ to return before we participate in the Kingdom. The Kingdom is here. We all come together as Christ followers, bearing the image of our Creator, clothed in Christ, ready to usher in a new order. Ready to see "Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

3. V dies before he can see the total destruction of the government building. He passes the "new order" on to his followers to run. Jesus did the same as he died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. We have been given the responsibility of the Kingdom of God. Matthew 16:18 puts it like this: "I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven..."

4. V defeats both of the two top dogs in the government. The two main guys who were calling the shots and controlling the people were dead even before the government building blew up. Before the old order was "officially overthrown", V had already taken care of the top. There is a feeling, right before V dies, that he has just won the war even before the society has experienced any change. This is the same truth we see with Christ. It is finished. Jesus has accomplished the victory of the Kingdom of God over against the kingdom of this world. And the victory is won even before the battle begins. The future broke into the present with Jesus on the cross. And now history experiences more and more of the future as the Kingdom of God is experienced in the present.

I am not so naive as to think that these parallels are perfect. Jesus was even more subversive than V because Jesus didn't need to use violence in order to bring about victory. But there are a few themes that are weaved through this movie that sparked my attention. Themes of the Kingdom echo in our world, sometimes, in unlikely places.

Friday, September 08, 2006

public scripture and private prayer

N.T. Wright's new book, "Simply Christian" has challenged me on two things. First, the use of scripture readings in worship. Secondly, the regular use of written prayers. This should come as no surprise being that the author is an Anglican. But his points were taken to heart.

Scripture does seem to exert a power and authority all its own. Its not just the story of God's revelation in history, in many ways it is a way in which God is revealing himself. And when the scriptures are read aloud, there is a way that the Spirit moves that is uniquely different than what happens during a sermon.

As far as prayer goes, I never considered spontaneous prayer arrogant. It's an interesting thought though. In my tradition, written prayers are seen as stale, inauthentic and out of touch with the real world. To pray spontaneously is seen as the only really way to "pray from your heart" in a relational way. But I also see the arrogance in it.

When I read a prayer written by someone in church history, I admit that they articulated my desires and my prayers in a better way than I ever could. In a sense, I submit to their years of praying and their close relationship to the Father and I become a student of prayer. I become like an apprentice who is doing the work himself, yet under the supervision of a master. I pray their words with my voice. Their longings and mine come together in community as I pray with their written requests. So far from being irrelevant, maybe these great written prayers from the past are just what my prayer life needs.

I want to experiment with these two things in the future. I want to try to get creative corporately with scripture readings and I want to be humbled privately with the practice of praying written prayers.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

activism and the church

Activism tends to irritate me. I am trying to figure out whether activism really belongs in the church at all. Here is a definition of activism: noun 1. the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals, sometimes by demonstrations, protests, etc.

I think many emergent folks look to the left at liberal ideology and get excited. Their thinking is: "If only we had more activism. If only we could use the political system to right the social wrongs." And yet those same folks tend to look over to their right in disgust at the activism happening on the conservative side. They see protests outside of abortion clinics and DaVinci Code movies and shake their head. Their thinking tends to be: "Silly misguided fundamentalists. They just need to sit down and shut up."

But I think the disgust at conservative activism reveals the deeper problem of "activism" in general to which the emergent church is often blinded. For many emergents, activism is good so long as it's a social issue, which is usually a part of the liberal agenda (poverty, environment, individual rights, etc.). But many believe that activism is bad if it is about moral issues, which are usually a part of the conservative agenda (abortion, homosexuality, etc).

Now, overall, I think the liberal/conservative dichotomy is often a false one. As is the dichotomy between "social" and "moral" issues. Usually issues are both moral and social. Usually liberals and conservatives agree on what problems need to be addressed, they just have different solutions. For me, none of this is where the irritation comes from. For me, it comes from "activism" itself.

Why is it that conservative activism is so disgusting to liberals? Why is liberal activism so disgusting to conservatives? I think at the heart of this frustration and irritation is a truth. Activism misses the point.

Activists usually do more complaining than actual "action." Activism is seen as an action in and of itself. But it's not. It is thought that just raising awareness is enough, or even a good thing. But I am struggling to agree with that thinking anymore. Awareness without the tools and resources for action breeds, what I will call, "informed inaction." Informed inaction leads to skepticism and ultimately cynicism.

Conservative activists wave their anti-abortion signs and "Don't take the 10 Commandments out of the courthouse" signs and yet aren't really doing anything. They are neither making our courts more just, nor are they helping the teen with her crisis pregnancy. My conservative friends spend all their energy talking about how corrupt our culture has become. At the same time, they hope I don't find out about their addiction to porn or alcohol or pain killers. They watch O'Reiley and blast the stupid liberals, but they neither tithe nor will they give to causes that help the poor.

Liberal activists march for the environment, for abortion rights and for gay rights. But yet again, they really aren't doing anything by being "activists" accept maybe alleviating a guilty middle-class conscience. Most of my liberal friends love to piss and moan about how terrible big-business is while they stand their in the Abercrombie and Fitch clothes eating their McDonald's cheeseburger. Then they remind me how sick they are of President Bush yet they never voted in the last election. They whine to me about big-oil while we ride together in their gas-hog SUV.

Activism is useless without action. It is not an action in and of itself. Activism has turned into a socially acceptable way to "vent" frustrations, rather than the beginning of action and change. Martin Luther King Jr. could stand up before crowds and preach and he could stand before Presidents and speak because he was at the front of the lines when the water hoses were turned on. For him it was more than bitching and moaning. It was about the transformation of a culture based on the values of the Kingdom of God.

So I am not sure activism has a place in the church. To me, actions speak louder than words, and activism doesn't speak at all. It just breeds cynics. Don't talk to me about how bad "such and such" is or how someone should do something about "this or that." Invite me to do what you are doing to change the world if you are doing anything at all. I will join you in your action. But I will not join you in your activism.