A Disturbing Image

The other day I was in Cleveland, OH on business.  As we entered the downtown area in our taxi we were confronted with a large billboard with a disturbing image.  One of Nike’s hot endorsement deals is with LeBron James, the star player for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.  This billboard is a celebration of LeBron’s MVP season last year.

The text on the billboard is “We are all witnesses.”  Having just used Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 as a sermon text last Sunday, these words were very familiar, and LeBron’s pose has a disturbing similarity to what Peter refers to himself and the others of the twelve apostles having witnessed.

The outstretched arms and the face turned toward heaven bears an eerie similarity to Jesus’ posture on the cross, and the choice of words could not have been accidental either, a word for word quote of how the English Standard Version renders Acts 2:32 “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.”  This is a stark reminder of the nature and objects of worship in our culture today, as well as our culture’s poor use of words and concepts like “Savior.”

Subjects of King Christ

This past January I began studies toward a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. This semester I am taking a systematic theology course on the doctrines of Man, Christ and Redemption. As a part of our course work, we post to a discussion forum each week on a question set by the professor. This is my response to the questions from a couple of weeks ago, which were “How should Christ’s kingship guide and direct our lives?” and “Why then is it so hard to fight against sin?”

If Christ is our king, then we are under his authority.  This has several implications for us.  First, we are under his authority as subjects in his kingdom.  This demands obedience to the commands of our king.  Our lives, then, must necessarily be guided by those commands, and our decisions and actions must be toward the end of obedience to them.

Second, we are under his authority as citizens of his kingdom.  In this present world we are expatriates; our home is somewhere else.  We are no longer subject to the ruler of this world, but to the king of the kingdom in which we are citizens.  This means that we must resist conformity to the standards of this world in favor of conformity to the those of the kingdom of Christ, not concerning ourselves with comparisons to those who are outside that kingdom.  Our citizenship also means that we have access to the benefits of Christ’s kingdom in the Holy Spirit indwelling us, empowering us to be obedient and to understand what the King requires of us.

Third, we must understand that Christ won a victory of conquest over sin at the cross.  This was no negotiated settlement, nor a surrender on the part of the enemy, but an absolute victory.  As citizens of Christ’s kingdom, under his authority, we have the benefit of this victory that we are obtaining through the process of sanctification through the renewing work of the Spirit in us.

I think fighting against sin is hard for us because we forget that we are under authority in our daily lives.  It is easy for us to imagine being under Christ’s authority as an abstract concept, but more difficult to live in this reality minute by minute.  An answer to this problem is to work to live more aware of the kingship of Christ daily, to have a vision of him on the throne ever before us. By looking to the throne of Christ in this way we are able to keep our perspective on who and whose we are and continually appropriate the absolute victory our king has won over sin for us.  We need not fear defeat in this, for the battle is won and, as Proverbs 21:31 says, we must prepare for the battle but the ultimate victory belongs to Christ our king.

I am an alien

Although I’ve intellectually grasped the idea that we as Christians are alien to this world we inhabit, the past few days have unexpectedly brought that reality home to me. The inauguration of President Obama has brought with it a great deal of talk about new hope and optimism. He is a new, fresh voice in our nation’s political life. But there is a subtext that accompanies all this that has made me aware of how little I have in common with the worldview of those whose hope is in Obama (or any other man).

Nothing fundamental has changed about the nature of hope or its availability in this present world. Man on his own is without hope no matter who occupies the White House or any other seat of leadership. Our only hope is in Christ and our real citizenship is in heaven through him.

While this is a milestone in the history of our country, and it is good to be a citizen of a country that has taken such an important symbolic step in the equality of all, it has little significance from an eternal perspective. My hope is in my citizenship in the home to which I long to go and the King who rules both there and here.

What are we and why are we here?

I’m referring to us “the Church.”  There are lots of people across the whole spectrum of our culture asking these kinds of questions…including me.  The Anglicans, and others, are struggling with big issues like “Can we be a Biblical church and include homosexuals as priests, bishops, and in other leadership roles?”  The Willow Creek Church in Chicago is wrestling with data that indicates that they have led people to the table of the Lord, but not taught them how to eat for themselves, leaving many as unweaned baby Christians starving for more nourishment than milk can provide.

See my friend Bethany Mendenhall’s posts on the Willow Creek thing here and here at Where the Grey Lives for the kinds of questions we should be asking about this whole thing.

Matthew 28:16-20 could hardly be clearer in what we are supposed to be doing.  Making disciples doesn’t involve our selling the Gospel or closing the deal or any other kind of marketing-speak.  That stuff is the Holy Spirit’s job.  Our job, as Bethany rightly says, is to live the Kingdom; to be disciples so we can make disciples.  That means knowing what Jesus told us so we can teach it to others in our words and our actions.

That probably, no – that definitely means church, and Christians individually, should look a lot different that it does today in most places and people.  Maybe devoting ourselves to the word and to prayer will lead to a more communal lifestyle like it did is 1st Century Jerusalem…I don’t know.  I’m not sure that is the point anyway.  The real point is to devote ourselves to the Mission, to the word, and to prayer and see where the Spirit takes us.

The Inconvenient Truth

I have not seen Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” but I have heard much about it. In my profession as a architect, sustainable design is one of the key issues of the day, and there are those who are passionate about sustainability mainly because they are fully bought in to the reality of global warming. In this political season, the global warming issue will certainly be a topic of debate. In case it isn’t obvious, the main reason for global warming, according to its evangelists (and they have all the characteristics that make that word an appropriate label), is us. We are destroying the planet, and have been since the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Taken to its extreme, this argument make us humans parasites on what would be an otherwise pristine paradise. There are several thoughts I have on this whole topic from the vantage point of my Christian worldview.

First let me set the stage for my comments. It is undeniable that there is a global warming trend. The metrics on this are clear. What is less clear to me is that there is scientific consensus on the cause or the long term affects. There is a shrillness in the denunciations of scientists who raise questions about the conclusions that have been reached by those in Mr. Gore’s camp that makes me suspicious. In regard to moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, I am all for that. We human beings, particularly in the industrialized world have been gluttons of resources, often to an obscene degree, and that goes against one of the primary reasons for man’s existence on the earth. More about that in a moment. The main point for me is logic; why use more just because we can when less will do?

So what should we who hold a Christian worldview think about this issue? Does the Bible have anything to say about this? I think so. First of all, after we humans were created to have fellowship with God, we were assigned the task of being stewards of God’s creation. Being a steward means caring for something on behalf of another as if it were your own. My view is that God did not relieve us from this responsibility when he cast man out of the garden after the Fall. If we do not care for the creation responsibly, we are failing in what was the original responsibility of mankind. Moving toward conserving and living sustainable lifestyles are not really optional; we all need to do this as quickly as is practically possible.

On the assertion made by the most radical proponents in the the global warming camp that man is a parasitic being, I think Christians can firmly disagree. God created us to live here. We have been here from the beginning and as His stewards of creation are a very important part of how he made the world to work. Have we modern men done a bad job? Absolutely, but to say that the world would have been better without us is a pointless statement. First of all, how could we know this for certain? It is equally likely that things might be much worse without us here. As a practical matter, we are here for good or ill, and we have to deal with that as a fact. If we will see our role as the stewards God made us to be, and view our stewardship as service and worship to Him I think we might make different decisions than we have made in the past.

Finally, the whole question of when the trouble really started and what caused it. Gore and those who support his view of things generally point to the Industrial Revolution as the time when things began to go wrong. But the Bible tells us that things went bad way before that. Genesis 3:17 says that the world we know today is not the same as it was created to be, and that we are responsible for that. After man’s sin in Adam, God cursed the ground because of us. So THE Inconvenient Truth is that we are more responsible for the mess the world is in, not just environmentally, that Mr. Gore and others are willing to acknowledge.

So yes, conserve, be sustainable. We might be able to fix some of the environmental problems, but the bigger problems will not be solved by better science, or anything else we can do. Fixing and protecting the environment as best we can is the right thing to do, but in the big theme of things it’s the equivalent of rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs while the ship sinks. We have to rely on and accept the solution to the bigger problems that God himself has provided…salvation through faith in Christ.

Can Community Exist Virtually?

The Community Group I lead has been studying the book of Ephesians these past few months. One of its main themes is what the church ought to be like, so I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about that as I prepare for our sessions. Along side this, I’m a regular listener to William Bennett’s morning talk show, Mornings in America. While listening one morning last week, I heard a discussion about how the current war in Iraq is perceived by folks here at home, with the point being that, as a society or community we don’t feel that we’re very involved in this unless we have a family member or friend over there. We’ve lost some sense of the larger community as a culture. So all this converged to get me thinking about community and today’s church.

At the beginning of my professional career in the mid-1980’s, I remember when the first personal cassette tape players came out, dominated by Sony’s Walkman. Personal computers were a relatively new idea, not widely used or even available. Cell phones were not really around yet, and a car phone was an unusual thing to see. Communication was by telephone over land line, FedEx was in it’s infancy, and faxes were not widely available. Letters were still written and sent by mail as a routine way of keeping in touch. Face to face communication was still the norm.

Today, we primarily keep in touch with each other electronically. Virtual community is what it’s called, and I’m certainly a participant as I sit in the food court across the street from my office and write this on my new MacBook. (No I don’t have my iPod – today’s Walkman – plugged in.) But as I look at the condition of community in our culture more broadly, and in the church specifically, I think something really important has been lost.

God intended for Christians to gather together, to live in community, as his design for the church. This is very clear from both the Biblical example of Acts and from Paul’s writing in Ephesians. This is to be a face to face community, not a virtual one, because there is something very important about actually being together. Without being together, we lose half of our communication media, the non-verbal. We can’t see facial expressions when we talk together (emoticons just don’t cut it, and besides, they can be lies). We can’t reach out and touch someone when the comfort of an embrace, or the unspoken “I’m here” of a touch is the best way to communicate the community’s support. Contagious laughter or joy is impossible virtually because it can’t be heard or seen. And we’ve all experienced the misunderstandings that can occur without the nonverbal parts of our language.

This applies to meeting together for worship as well. Television church attendance from the comfort of your easy chair is no substitute for the gathering together of the saints. Experiencing worship with other believers can lift us to a place where we never will go alone. Hearing the Word spoken and taught live and in person forces us to listen at least a little bit more. And the power of the Spirit at work in a corporate worship setting can be life changing.

Can this kind of community exist virtually? I don’t think so, and I would argue no kind of real community can. We are called as Christians to be counter-cultural. Maybe how we do community is a place we should begin.

Hebrews 10:23-25 (ESV) 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Thoughts About Work

Work. Something we all do. We spend the majority of our lives engaged in it, yet we think so little about why we are doing it and how we should be doing it. In the essay “Why Work?” Dorothy Sayers raises both of these questions for us.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about my work. Is this what I want to do for the remaining twenty or so years before retirement? Should I follow a different path? Why am I doing what I am doing? The usual things one asks when things are not going so well at the office. Reading this essay was a timely reality check for me.

Sayers has several main points, first, that we were made to work. God made us in his image, and he is a creative being, working to create us and the universe in which we exist. As beings made in that image, to work is a part of our nature.

Second, we need to do our best, to do the thing we do well in order to be true to our nature. God made what he made for his own sake and for his own benefit. In a similar way, our work needs to be soul-satisfying to us, no matter what it is. Obviously there are limitations on this. For example an excellent thief would not be true to the nature God gave him. Doing what is evil well is not good or moral.

This also means that our primary motivation should not be income, a hard concept in our culture. We should choose our career or job based on our passions and the skills God has given us. This is his plan for being fulfilled in our work.

The implications of this are huge, and provide some important clarifications to how we talk about work. What this all points to is finding your calling, and yes I mean that in the Scriptural sense. Calling is a term equally well applied to pastors, tradesmen, and professionals.

Unhappy with your work? The question to be asking is not about salary or hours or responsibility. The question is really “What’s my calling?”

Thoughts on Sin from Dorothy Sayers

Once again, as I read “Letters to a Diminished Church,” I am struck by the dullness of most of the work of contemporary writers. Yes, it is somewhat about style; Sayers has a wonderful way with words. But it is really the thoughtfulness behind the style that is so engaging.

In the essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” she first laments the modern reduction of the term “immorality” to being equated with lust, referring only to sexual sin. (And today, the teeth are being pulled from that category as well.) What follows is a wonderful exposition of the nature of the other six traditional “deadly sins” and how they build on one another. Beginning with wrath, moving through gluttony, covetousness, envy, sloth, culminating finally in the “head and origin of all sin,” pride, Sayers pulls no punches.

Gluttony makes us drive for more and more of everything regardless of need. This leads us the want what others have that we do not, covetousness. When we can’t get it we turn to envy simply because we see that someone else might be happier or have more than we do. When we see that having more doesn’t satisfy, we abandon hope, belief, knowledge, etc. and fall into the torpor of sloth. Finally we decide that we must be master of our own destiny and judge of our own actions, making ourselves god of our little universes, taking up the original and master sin, pride.

This piece is well worth a thoughtful, brutally honest read. Sayers asks some hard questions about how these sins are applicable to Christians and the Church. We do well to ask them of ourselves in these times.

A Slip on the Stairs

A lot has happened in the two months since my last post here. A few days after my last post in October, we had a freak accident in our house that resulted in the loss of one of our precious Shelties. Our older one, Picture Perfect Spenser, had a bad fall going down our basement stairs early one morning for his first trip outside. Nothing unusual about this particular morning…just a simple tumble down the stairs. No immediately apparent serious injuries, but by the afternoon when my wife got home he was partially paralyzed.

After tests, back surgery, continued deterioration over the weekend and lots of tears and questions why, we made the decision to let him go. A faithful companion for seven years, a loving and deeply loved part of our family, taken by a simple slip on the stairs.

I tried many times in the past eight weeks to write about it, but the nearness of the loss and then intervening busy-ness kept me from it. So here I am tonight, about seven years to the day from when we brought him home reminiscing about the lessons I learned from his life. Phillip Keller is a much better writer that I am, and much of what he wrote in “Lessons from a Sheepdog” applies to what we learned from Spenser.

Beyond the lessons about what love is like and what our relationship with God is like, as Keller describes in his book, I’m thinking about the fragility of life. As I walk downstairs tonight after I finish writing, I could fall and be gone from this life in the blink of an eye. This is one of the consequences of a fallen world. Most of my time is spent dealing with preserving what could be gone in that instant. Yet I am reminded of Jesus’ words about birds and flowers and grass and me. I am called to seek first his Kingdom, to keep my eyes on what God values, to press on to his higher calling. To remember that, like our Spenser depended on us for everything he had, for his very life, I am dependent on a God who is vastly more generous that I will ever dream of being…who has lavished his grace on me. Hallelujah!

Where do we live?

My wife Lisa had picked up an old note pad of mine, about 15 years old (!), to use up the paper in it before going to buy a new one. As she used it the other day, she ran across a piece I had written sometime in the late 1980s, and suggested that it was worthy of posting here. As I read it again, I had to agree. Although not directly related to my recent theme of how big God is, it does speak to our life in Him.

This was probably written in December or January of whatever year it was. Beth Hallel is a Messianic Jewish congregation in North Atlanta.

“This time of year, at least for me, is always a time for reflection on where I’ve been and what I’ve done in the last twelve months. During a visit to our brethren at Beth Hallel, Rabbi Solomon made a comment in his sermon about mountains that got me thinking. Upon reflection, I realize that I have been doing a lot of walking in the ‘valleys’ of life. It has been pretty comfortable, and pretty easy; but not where I, or any Christian, should be spending most of the time.

We Christians ought to be mountain climbers. Walking through valleys is not our place; living in valleys is not our destiny. Our lives ought to be measured, not by the valleys we’ve walked, but by the mountains we’ve climbed.

Moses is perhaps the clearest example of this in scripture. Moses’ life in the Lord began on ‘the mountain of God’ called Horeb in Midian. Moses met God on the mountainside and his life was forever changed. On Mount Sinai, Moses came to know God in a way no other man did; he came, literally, into God’s presence and spoke with him. On the final mountain, Mount Nebo, Moses saw the fulfillment of God’s promise and the culmination of God’s purpose for his life and was taken into God’s eternal presence.

These three mountaintop experiences were connected by a lot of climbing. It is here that Christians are called to live. The Jews knew this principle; they had to live it annually as they ascended to Mount Zion to worship at the temple. As they climbed, they sang the Songs of Ascent, preparing themselves for the mountaintop experience of worship. The climb challenges us and strengthens us. The summit exhilarates us and gives us perspective on the world.

Yes, we must cross the valleys, but having come from the mountain we can share the wonder of the summit and bring along other climbers. Valleys are for passing through, not for staying. Mountains are where we belong. ‘Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord…'”