Monday, February 03, 2020

Why are we Shocked?

Don't forget, we live in Babylon. And Babylon isn't Jerusalem - never has been, never will be (in fact, earthly Jerusalem ain't no Jerusalem either).
In two stages, Israel was taken into exile. First, the Northern Kingdom was conquered carried into exile to the Assyrian empire in 722BC. The Southern Kingdom of Judah help off exile for more than a century, but finally fell to the Babylonians in 586BC when Jerusalem was sacked and the temple destroyed. For roughly a generation, the people of Israel had to learn how to live as faithful Jews in Babylon. Babylon wasn't Jerusalem - there were other gods, other laws, other peoples, other priorities, and sins that were appalling in Jerusalem were celebrated in Babylon. It was in this context that men like Shadrach Meshach and Abednego, with Daniel and later Esther and uncle Mordechai (in Persia) lived faithfully and served nobly. 

As believers, we share more contextual connectedness with these exiles living in foreign lands than we do with Israelites who lived in the Promised Land. As Peter tells us, we are 'elect exiles of the Dispersion' (1 Peter 1:1). We aren't natural-born residence of this world, our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and we are 'strangers and aliens' or 'sojourners and exiles' in this world (1 Peter 2:11).  This is a truth we tend to forget, or maybe a truth we never fully embraced. There were times when we may have been fooled into thinking we lived in a spiritual city - a Jerusalem - because the mores and norms were superficially Judeo-Christian. But, it was a mirage only.

Let me be clear. We aren't aliens and strangers in America because of cultural decline or unfavorable court decisions. We aren't aliens and strangers because America is a post-Christian society. We are aliens because America (and England, and France, and China, and Yemen, and every other country) is Babylon. This applies to all civilizations through all time (save one). So Calvin, "For, if heaven is our homeland, what else is the earth but our place of exile."

American is no more, no less, Babylon now than it was in the 1950s or the 1770s. The US is no more, no less, Babylon than the UK or China. 

No earthly city corresponds to the heavenly Jerusalem, not even the earthly Jerusalem. All cities, all nations, all powers, are a part of the temporal, temporary, and corrupted Babylon. 

And in Babylon we reside, though only as pilgrims - exiles waiting to go home.

The picture of Babylon is negative, but not wholly so. There are still good things to enjoy and be grateful for. Here in Babylon we, like Israel in its exile, we can
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:5-7, ESV).
But, we recognize these good things for what they are - temporary.

And, we recognize the city we live in for what it is - temporary and corrupted. Babylon will never be Jerusalem and we should never expect it to conduct itself like Jerusalem. We shouldn't be shocked or dismayed when sin is celebrated. Sin is the way of the world. Sometimes my social media feeds are flooded with friends expressing outrage over some new manifestation of Babylon being Babylon. Why surprised? It's what we should expect (we expect two-year-olds to get grumpy when they're tired, teenagers to be sleepy in the morning and leopards to have spots).

Expecting it, maybe we can be less shrill - as though our way of life was being threatened. It isn't, because our life is elsewhere. We reside here, but we shouldn't expect Babylon to conform to our mores and norms or be shocked or bitter when it doesn't. It won't, it never has (and when it appeared to, it was superficial at best).

On the other hand, seeking the good of the city means we grieve sin and we want those who are impacted by its devastation to experience the fullness of redemption and restoration. And working for the good of the city might mean we use the tools of the city to better the city (like Joseph, or Daniel) - working with governments to restrain the most egregious evils, to mitigate against the worst of sins effects, alleviate injustice, remedy hurt and pain. 

So, maybe a bit less whining and a bit more hoping and working would serve the evangelical church well. Just sayin.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Faith vs Decision

I was recently in a conversation with someone I respect immensely. They reported something they heard a pastor say that troubled them. Via the grapevine, it was reported that this pastor taught that his kids didn't need to be saved because they already were, by virtue of him being a pastor.

I suspect, knowing something of this pastor, it was a slight misunderstanding. I suspect, though I don't know for sure, that the pastor probably said something like "my kids don't need to become Christians, they already are," or "my kids don't need to 'make a decision' for Christ', they already trust him."  If that's what was stated, I agree.

FYI, not a picture of Caleb or any of my sons
Eight to ten years ago my son Caleb went through a "Dig Session" at church. Dig sessions at ECC are designed to help kids prepare to participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion. One of the questions the worksheet guided me to ask Caleb was something like "when did you become a Christian?"  He looked at me with wounded eyes - "Dad, I've always been a Christian."  He was right. He had never been a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Rastafarian or an atheist. He'd always been a Christian.

Oh, but someone will object, "He needs to make a decision to trust Christ!"

But does he? I asked, "are you trusting Christ to forgive your sins and are you committed to following the rest of your life" and he replied, simply and forcefully, "Yes!" Does he need to have a point where he decided to trust Jesus? I'd say no.

Let me use a favorite illustration for us evangelicals to make the point. We often say, correctly, that head knowledge is not the same as faith. You might know, so the illustration goes, that this chair will hold you. But, when you sit in it, you're exercising faith.

Ok, but in your childhood home did you decide you'd trust the Lazy-Boy. Or, did you just trust it because every day, everyone around you sat in it?  I don't ever remember deciding to trust a chair, but I do trust them (with the occasional exception of ones in my office I've tried repairing, but remain sketchy).  Many who grew up in the church with godly parents were taught of God's faithfulness, of Christ's love and kindness. They trust Jesus because they've always, as far back as they remember, trusted Jesus. If I had asked Caleb, "When did you decide to trust Jesus?" he would have said, "Dad, don't be an idiot, I've always trusted Jesus!"

Similarly, when did you decide to love your grandma?  Or, have you loved her from before you can remember. She was always in your life. She was always there and kind (I know, not all are, but I'm speaking from my experience).  Loving grandma wasn't a decision, it was and is just a fact of life from as far back as I remember.  I could have asked Caleb, "When did you start loving Jesus?" and he would have said "Ok Dad, I'm tired of this line of questioning. I have always loved Jesus."

 There are situations when the above isn't true. Someone who's never seen a chair before may need to decide to trust a chair. Someone who meets their grandmother for the first time as a teenager may need to decide how they will respond to this new person in their life.  Someone who hasn't grown up in the faith, or only nominally in the faith, may need to decide to love and trust Jesus and become a Christian (with the irresistible aide of the Holy Spirit - my inner Calvinist can't write "decide" without due clarification).

But, for those raised in the church and/or a home saturated in faith, trust in Jesus and love for him is part of the air they have breathed from the beginning. "Deciding" isn't necessarily necessary. Deciding does not equal faith.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Evangelicals, we don't want prayer in schools (or why we shouldn't)

Several months ago, sitting in the Indiana Memorial Union with my friend Adam deWeber,  two students approached us and asked if we'd do a quick survey for a class project. We agreed and were given sheets with twenty-five or so questions. One of the questions was 'do you support prayer in schools?'  I asked what they meant by that, but they said the couldn't/wouldn't explain more. As it stood, that's an impossible question for me to answer.

If you mean, should we allow students time to pray privately (emergency prayers before finals will always be needed), or to voluntarily gather in groups to pray together (i.e. See You at the Pole), then yes, I support this.

But I suspect they mean officially sanctioned prayers led by a teacher/administrator with student participation expected or encouraged. This is what most from older generations bemoan losing when Madalyn Murray O'Hair won her lawsuit and school prayers were no more (the historical timeline of prayers in public schools is more complicated than this, I know).

If it is this type of officially sanctioned prayers led by a school official, then I DO NOT WANT PRAYER IN MY KIDS' SCHOOL. That's right, I would oppose this type of prayer in our local public schools. Why? Two big reasons:

First, I don't want my kids learning how to pray in school because it isn't the job of a school official to teach my children how to pray.  It's mine and the church's responsibility. Would I get to choose who leads them in prayer in day and thus teaches them to pray? If so, I'd find a faithful Presbyterian or Evangelical to teach them (if not, then a Lutheran or Catholic could be fine). But I doubt I'll get to choose. What if it's a crazy "health-and-wealth-prosperity-gospel" teacher? What if it's a Mormon or Jehovah's Witness? What if it's some crazy liberal who prays to Mother God or something like that? What kind of prayers would be offered - vague general prayers that are innocuous and unChristian?  I'd rather my kids not pray like that. I don't want civil religion types prayers - I'd rather have no prayer.

Second, if we insist the prayers are truly Christian prayers, in the name of Christ and informed by core Christian doctrines, then what of the sizeable minorities who do not claim to be Christians. What of the Jews in our schools, the Muslims, the atheists. Should we force their children to pray to in Christ's name? What about regions where Christianity is the minority, like Hamtrack, MI or in Jewish neighborhoods in NYC?  Is it the majority that chooses what kind of prayers are offered?  What of the Christian students in these areas - should they be forced to pray to in a Muslim way?

We live in a pluralistic culture. The job of the schools is not to promote religion; they wouldn't be good at it.

J. Gresham Machen, the staunch opponent of liberalism at Princenton who went on to found Westminster Theological Seminary, likewise opposed Bible readings and prayers in school...back in  1933!

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters

I remember hearing a talk radio host recently warn people that if their church spoke about social justice, they should leave because the church isn't Christian, it's communist. I understand that labels can mean all sorts of things, but I find it hard to be against social justice. If you're against it, are you for social injustice? The Bible does speak about social justice all the time - not necessarily in those words. In fact, maybe we should call it what the Bible calls it - righteousness.

Everyone talks about justice, Democrat and Republican, though they'll use different language to do so. Justice for the unborn. Justice for oppressed. Justice for the immigrant. Justice for those whose convictions go against the cultural tide. And all these groups deserve justice!

But, I don't hear many talking about intergenerational justice - and I think we need to start talking about that in earnest. In a 2011 statement, a group of evangelical thinkers (Evangelical for Social Action with Center for Public Justice) issued a Call for Intergenerational Justice, contending “Intergenerational justice demands that one generation must not benefit or suffer unfairly at the cost of another.”

The issue that sparked the petition was the mounting debt crisis. Unfortunately, this crisis has not gone away, though it is being ignored. The federal budget deficit was $984 billion in 2019 - a 26% increase from the year before. Our national debts is $23 trillion ($23,000,000,000,000).  Obviously, this is not sustainable. It's also unjust! To fix today's problems on tomorrow's dollar keeps snowballing...and the monstrous snowball will destroy our children's economic futures.

And I listen to debates where politicians promise new programs - free this, free that...with no viable way to pay for it - and I think we're selling our kids to the god of mammon, unwilling to sacrifice a modicum of our material prosperity today to help them in the future. Biblically, it is the parent's role to save for their children, not mortgage their children's future (2 Corinthians 12:14, and a lot of wisdom literature).

My small-government Republican friends may like this post so far. You won't if you keep reading...

As unjust as those who rack up massive debt for their children are those who use up all the earth's resources, leaving it polluted and stripped. Some will quibble over the science of climate change. Set it aside. Can we quibble over the loss of 3 billion birds in North America in the last few decades (or are bird watchers and ornithologists also just a tool of 'big solar' - ok, I'm getting a bit sarcastic)?  Shouldn't we all be able to agree that we want clean water (not like what my mom and dad lived with in PA where some of their neighbor's water was flammable)?  Shouldn't we be able to agree that we need clean air - not like people in the LA Basin suffered through a few decades ago? Shouldn't we agree that there are some places of such awe-inspiring beauty that we shouldn't befoul them with oil rigs or mines and ruin them for future generations?

Regulations (that were barely addressing the massive problems to begin with) are being rolled back to make energy cheaper, manufacturing more competitive, etc.  But it is unjust. Biblically, the land (and sea and sky) doesn't belong to us - we are stewards of it for God. And, it's a common good - not just ours to use, but everyone's, including future generations. The Bible has quite a bit to say to those who destroy the earth (i.e. Revelation 11:18, Proverbs 12:10, Deuteronomy 20:19-20).

I am sure there is a myriad of other applications of this concept of generational justice. Let's include this in our dialogue, expect it of our elected officials, and strive together to find solutions for everyone, even those who are yet to be born.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Excellencies of Christ [and His Church]

This past week I was studying for my ACG class [topic is 'Mother Church'] and was reminded of my favorite sermon by Jonathan Edwards. No, it's not Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (though that one is very good too). The sermon, titled 'The Excellency of Christ', is based on Revelation 5:5-6:
And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain...
Edwards points out that John is told by the angel that the Lion of the tribe of Judah can open the scroll. In his vision, it would be quite natural for him to expect to see this Lion; instead, in his vision he sees a Lamb.  Edwards reasons,

He is called a Lion….He is called a Lamb. That which I would observe from the words…There is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ. The lion and the lamb, though very diverse kinds of creatures, yet have each their peculiar excellencies.
Throughout the sermon, he helps the reader consider the diverse excellencies that meet in Jesus - the strength of the Lion, the meekness of the Lamb, the infinite majesty of God Almighty and the infinite condescension of the Suffering Servant. This leads Edwards to his application or 'uses'. First, there is an evangelistic use. He contends,
Let the consideration of this wonderful meeting of diverse excellencies in Christ induce you to accept of him, and close with him as your Savior. As all manner of excellencies meet in him, so there are concurring in him all manner of arguments and motives, to move you to choose him for your Savior, and every thing that tends to encourage poor sinners to come and put their trust in him: his fullness and all-sufficiency as a Savior gloriously appear in that variety of excellencies that has been spoken of.
In other words, what could you possibly need in a Savior that can't be found in Jesus? He is all-sufficient for every need you have.  The second use of this truth is for the Christian.
Let what has been said be improved to induce you to love the Lord Jesus Christ, and choose him for your friend and portion. As there is such an admirable meeting of diverse excellencies in Christ, so there is every thing in him to render him worthy of your love and choice, and to win and engage it. Whatsoever there is or can be desirable in a friend, is in Christ, and that to the highest degree that can be desired.
I love this sermon. It's rich, Christo-centric, stirs my affections and makes me want more of Christ. But what drew my mind from my study of ecclesiology to this sermon?  For the six weeks, I have been leading my ACG (Adult Community Group) through a study of the different images of the church in the New Testament. There are many - Paul Minear describes ninety-six images related to the church!  We haven't considered all ninety-six, but the ones we have are very diverse. The church as the Kingdom of God is an image to be held alongside the church as the Body of Christ. The church as a building is to be held alongside the church as a vine. The church as the Bride of Christ is meant to be held together with the church as a sheep pen. Diverse images for sure!

So why so much diverse imagery from the pens of the New Testament authors to describe the church? Let me plagiarize Edwards,
"There is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in the church of Jesus Christ. The building and the vine, though very diverse kinds of images, yet have each their peculiar excellencies." 
No one image would suffice to sum up the beauty and the mystery of the Chruch. My 'use' of this truth mirrors Edwards. Let the consideration of this wonderful meeting of diverse excellencies in Christ’s church induce you to accept it (not reject or eschew it), serve it (instead of consume it), and love it, as Christ does.