Thursday, February 23, 2006

A New Kind of Christian - Chapter Eleven

Some people come to religion for some certainty, some clarity, some simplicity. I guess they react when the thing they’re counting on for stability starts shaking them up instead of consoling them, and calming them. I think a lot of people are afraid. They’re afraid of heresy and sin creeping into the camp. So they want to keep everything safe and sanitized. It really is a legitimate concern. How do we remain open and accepting of people, without compromising and condoning sin? Every church should be struggling with this issue.
I tell our people that we don’t expect non-Christians to act like Christians, and we don’t expect new Christians to act like mature Christians, and that helps, but it’s still tough to function with people playing by different sets of rules. Maybe that’s why love is such an important theme in the Bible. Maybe the complexity and messiness is a sign that we’re continuing in the spirit of the early church.
Let’s say that most modern churches can’t or won’t handle that complexity. Let’s say they won’t accept anyone into their fellowship who does not already live by their moral code. Where does that lead?
Maybe a hundred years from now, the descendants of my fellow evangelicals today will be like the Amish, but instead of maintaining 1850’s German culture, they’ll perpetuate 1950’s American culture. They’ll still be thriving, or at least surviving, but as a kind of separated society. And maybe that’s O.K.
One of the problems with the modern view of sin is that it wants to make everything simple, universal, uniform, black and white. Life isn’t simple. Sin isn’t simple.
We need to be concerned about sin. One of the most dangerous things in the world is to define sin to suit our own tastes.
I think the view of sin given by our modern Christian heritage was well-meaning and sincere but downright dangerous. How much energy do we modern Christians put into condemning sexual sins compared to avoiding the judgmental spirit of the Pharisees? (The story of the woman caught in adultery) I have never been treated as badly by a single non-Christian as I have dozens of zealous but angry Christians. The whole judgmental thing is so contrary to the Spirit of Christ.
The only kind of sin we want to focus on as modern Christians are the isolated individual sins co individual sins committed by isolated individual people. We need to think more systemically. What sins are we ignoring in our culture and community? (The story of the Good Samaritan). The issue isn’t who is wrong or righteous. The issue is who is truly good. To be truly good means more than being righteously religious. To be truly good means being a good neighbor. And to be a good neighbor means recognizing that there are ultimately no strangers.
Modern Christianity has too often acted as if the only kind of righteousness that mattered was the kind of righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees – the righteousness of nice, clean, legalistic, monads who managed to stay disconnected and disinfected on the other side of the street. What responsibility do we have to make our community and world a better place? What responsibility do we have to address injustice around us?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A New Kind of Christian - Chapter Ten

This is about my own spiritual life. It’s about my own pursuit of truth. “Just remember, often the discomfort gets worse before it gets better.”
Neo and Dan had both been raised to believe that the central story of the Bible was about saving individual souls. It was about getting individual souls into heaven. Neo had begun having problems with this belief for several reasons:
1. First it smacked of selfishness. Would God want a heaven full of people who wanted to be “saved” but didn’t necessarily want to be good? We run the risk of attracting people who want salvation from hell without necessarily wanting salvation from sin.
2. Second the individualism of this approach sounded downright evil, like using insider trading information to gain an unfair advantage over others. Maybe we should think that we are chosen by God not for privilege but for service. “I love my neighbors, and if receiving God’s salvation will help me help them, then I want it!”
3. Third, there have to be two dimensions of salvation, not just one. For conservatives it’s all about the eternal dimension saving one’s soul from hell. For liberals it’s about the historical dimension – saving the human race and the planet from destruction. The biblical view of salvation is not either/or but both/and.
A key component of working this out is to distinguish the church from the kingdom. The church exists to be a catalyst of the kingdom. It exists for the benefit of the kingdom of God, something bigger than itself. The church exists for the world – to be God’s catalyst so that the world can receive and enter God’s kingdom more and more. The kingdom is where the historical and eternal come together.
There are two dominant stories alive in our culture today. Story one goes like this: Once upon a time, the universe banged into being no apparent reason and with no apparent purpose. Someday it will end and there will be no one left to remember it ever existed. In the meantime we live and die. And that’s about it.
Story two begins with a Creator who designs the universe to produce life. The Creator cares about everything he has made, including us. The Creator reaches out to us in many ways, constantly inviting us into a relationship of trust. When we die, we enter into the Creator’s presence so that in some sense this life that we now live is a prelude to a dimension of life that never dies.
We are becoming on this side of the door of death the kind of people we will be on the other side. The reality of death gives us an important gift every day: it reminds us that we can’t keep putting off the work of becoming. It tells us to prepare to meet God then by entering into a relationship with him now. What we will have become on this side of the door, that we will be on the other.
I don’t think we are ever in a position to judge others. I don’t think it’s our business to prognosticate the eternal destinies of anyone else.
According to C. S. Lewis heaven will be above all a place of joy: “Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for down here is not their natural place.” Joy is the serious business of heaven.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A New Kind of Christian - Chapter Nine

I think what Jesus was about, and really, what all the apostles were about at their best moments, was a global, public movement or revolution to bring holistic reconciliation, a reconnection with God, with others, with ourselves, and with our environment. True religion, revolutionary religion.
I think what people really mean when they say they are against organized religion is that they’re against hypocritical religion, misguided religion, blind or unthinking religion, religion of rules and laws rather than love, religion that comes diced and preprocessed and shrink-wrapped like ground beef.
I got to thinking about the different ways religion tends to relate to the culture around it: 1.Religion can simply try to serve culture, kind of like civil religion. Sometimes radio preachers seem so concerned about “saving America” that you’d think the gospel existed for the sake of American culture. Religion gains a certain kind of power and respectability at the cost of its soul. 2. Religion can also try to withdraw from culture – isolate itself and create its own subculture. 3. Jesus had a radically different way. He wanted to send his people into the culture with a mission – not in service to the culture in the sense of helping the culture achieve its own ends but in a kind of divinely subversive way, religion infiltrating culture with the kingdom of God, trying to redeem it for a higher agenda, God’s agenda.
A Ugandan Christian said: “When the missionaries came to my country, at first they tried to drive the culture from the people. They tried to replace it with their own European, culture, and they almost succeeded. But even though we believed the gospel, we resisted their efforts to eradicate our culture, because we came to realize that Jesus came not to drive the culture from the people but the sin from the culture. He came not to condemn our culture but to redeem it.”
In my mind, it should be possible to be a Christian and yet be culturally Buddhist, Muslim, or Navajo. That to me is the missionary challenge of the third millennium: not eradicating Buddhist or Islamic or tribal cultures but blessing them with Christ – letting Christ enter them and drive the evil from them and in that way redeem them. And my guess is that each will bring something that will enrich our Christian heritage too.
Syncretism is usually what Christians who are thoroughly immersed in one culture talk about when Christianity is being influenced by other cultures. To some degree I think syncretism is unavoidable. For example, when the gospel came to the Greco-Roman world, the Greeks and Romans got the gospel, but Christianity got Plato and Aristotle and Socrates too.
“So how do we know we are getting the gospel at all?” 1. The first protection is the Bible. We must always keep coming back to the Bible and doing our best to let it form and unsettle us when necessary. A friend of mine once told me that the parts of the Bible that bother you most are the ones that have the most to teach you. 2. We need the whole church, now and through history. If we’ve sincerely and honestly wrestled with Scripture – not jus as individuals but as a community – and if we’re really listening to one another – especially the minority voices, the ones we might try to marginalize and ignore – we have to believe we will be more in tune with God’s plans for us. 3. If we’re trying to not let the gospel get diluted or polluted with all kinds of other influences, at the end of the day we have to trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us. As we wrestle with Scripture and listen to one another, we have to believe that God will guide us too.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Discussion group

I look forward to seeing everyone tonight at our discussion group. The dialoque has been terrific.

A New Kind of Christian - Chapter Eight

What do you think about other religions? Do you think Jesus is the only way?
When it comes to other religions, the challenge in modernity was to prove that we’re right and they’re wrong. But I think we have a different challenge in postmodernity. The question isn’t so much whether we’re right but whether we’re good. And it strikes me that goodness, not just rightness, is what Jesus said the real issue was – you know, good trees produce good fruit, that sort of thing. If we Christians would take all the energy we put into proving we’re right and others are wrong and invested that energy in pursuing and doing good, somehow I think that more people would believe we are right.
“Are you saying that questions of truth are passé?”
I am saying that truth means more than factual accuracy. It means being in sync with God.
How do you evangelize then, if you don’t try to convince people of truth? Demonstration must accompany proclamation. But there is more. Instead of saying, “Hey, they’re wrong and we’re right, so follow us,” I think we say, “Here’s what I’ve found, here’s what I’ve experienced. Here’s what makes sense to me. I’ll be glad to share it with you, if you’re interested. It’s more like a dance than a conquest.
Could “Christianity” be an enemy to the gospel? We have a lot of our own embarrassments to face. One person said: “I think Christianity is a force for evil in the world.” “I’ve studied Jesus, and I think he was a great Jewish prophet, maybe the greatest who ever lived. But Christianity and Jesus don’t seem to have too much in common, as far as I can see.”
Neo said: “I think some Christians use Jesus as a shortcut to being right. In the process they bypass becoming humble or wise. If people reject Jesus when they hear some half-baked would-be evangelist strutting his stuff and mocking the Buddha or Muhammad, I don’t think they’re really rejecting Jesus. They’re rejecting the arrogance, ignorance, and bad taste of the preacher.
I really believe that the fullness of life is in Jesus. I really believe that not one person will be in real contact with God the Father apart from the work and wisdom and love of Jesus. If I didn’t believe that, I don’t think I could call myself a Christian.
I think that too often Christians falsely accuse other religions of things that just aren’t true. That injustice on our part is an ugly blemish. It brings shame on the gospel and on Christ.
My understanding of the gospel tells me that religion is always a mixed bag, whether it’s Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism. Some of it reflects people’s sincere attempts to find the truth, and some of it represents people’s attempt to evade the truth through hypocrisy. Isn’t the point of the gospel – that we’re all a mess, whatever our religion, in need of God’s grace?
“So you don’t think Christianity is better than any other religion? You can’t mean that!”
“I believe Jesus is the Savior, not Christianity.” Is that so bad?