Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nothing Uglier

Paul doesn’t waste time calling out the problem in the city of Corinth so many years ago: “there are quarrels among you” (1 Corinthians 1:11). When I look at your church, Paul says, it looks more like an ultimate fighting tournament than a spiritual family or faith community. The “body of Christ” is falling apart, the “people of God” are engaged in civil war; the conduct of “the saints” makes them look far more like the sinners they had been; the “pillar and foundation of the truth” has become a hypocritical house of cards; and the “bride of Christ” has become like a lady of the night. When Paul opens his letter to them, without missing a beat, he moves from thanking God for their identity—“those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus,” enriched in Christ in every way, not lacking any spiritual gift and fully expecting to be blameless on the day of Christ—to the painful reality—this community is falling apart in factions and fights.

There’s nothing uglier than a family feud. I still remember one Thanksgiving, fifteen to sixteen years ago now, when my brother and I stood in the yard in front our house yelling at each other at the top of our lungs. I’m ashamed of how I acted, appalled at how shallow the reasons for the fight were, and how public our display of disharmony was. Just one foolish example of how ugly family fights can be. But I’d also say, there’s nothing uglier than church fights, nothing more repulsive to the world we are called to serve than a divided and contentious church. I recall one day, many years ago, a friend of mine who was seeking God came to a church gathering. It happened to be on the same day that one member pulled another aside a church leader to speak her mind. She decided to have this conversation, not later in private, but right there in the crowd, before the notes of the final song had stopped echoing in the sanctuary (ah, the irony of that word, the way we look sometimes, the sanctuary; perhaps it’s better than many of our churches have watered down the idea, calling it an auditorium). She pulls the leader aside and unloads her issues and solutions for all the church’s ills, right there in eyesight and earshot of everyone. Of course, it’s no surprise that my friend seeking God sought him in a different place. Reactionary of him? Perhaps. Short-sighted of him? Maybe. Not the full picture of that church’s character? Of course. But still, I hear the words of the Apostle who says, you are “called to be his holy people,” and I understand why he grieves and implores God’s church to put down the knives, gloves and incendiary words and live into that ideal a bit more. There’s nothing uglier than a contentious church.

So Paul pleads and urges with them to unite, not on issues, people, or personalities, but on the person and mission of Jesus Christ: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Paul’s language here is quite visual. He uses the word ‘schisms’ (here, ‘divisions’) in verse 10. It’s a word we see Jesus use elsewhere as an image of clothing: “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.” Schisms. The same word is used in classic Greek literature to describe a ship that is splintered into pieces by the turbulent sea. Schisms. Paul says, that’s what happens when you try to base a spiritual community on anything other than cross of Jesus Christ. Like brand new slacks that get caught on a fence and torn apart, like a once mighty oceanliner splintered in a raging sea, it is a tragic thing for the body of Christ to be dismembered by human divisions and petty fights.

It seems so simple and I know ages of church fights testify how difficult the ideal is to reach. But I am confident that God is working in his broken, flawed church, to bring about his purpose in creation: to bring all things together again in Jesus Christ. So, let us take up Paul’s charge to let God start with us. Let us begin reflecting among ourselves and our world the very harmony, unity, and coming-together that God will do for all things when Jesus returns.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Meet the Family

Nearly every budding relationship has this pivotal, defining moment—a kind of relational rite of passage. I picture it this way: a young man, after a few sleepless nights, walks with his beloved up the concrete steps to a door, biting his lip, convinced that everyone on the entire block can hear his heartbeat. He’s imagined every possible scenario of what might happen next, as the door swings open…

It’s no surprise that countless stories have been told, and in recent years an entire movie franchise launched, off the premise of this kind of moment—that sacred (and at times scandalous) moment when young lady or young man takes their new loved one home to “meet the family.” It’s an anxious time: because there is risk—what if the family doesn’t like her? What if mom doesn’t approve of him?

But you know, of course, the deeper fear isn’t what the family thinks, it’s what your beloved thinks. You see, it’s harder to hide now that you are surrounded by those who know you best; it’s harder to maintain the image of what you want that special person to think about you. Now that she’s met my family, he wonders, what if she wants to run? She’s thinking: what if he decides to opt out, now that he knows who I am and where I’m from?

This sacred moment is far more than an ancient custom or an empty ritual. This moment is critical to any relationship because there is a real sense in which you cannot truly know someone until you know the people closest to their heart. You do not truly know someone until you know who they love and to whom they are connected. That’s one way I think of the role that Israel plays in the Story of God. In the OT, when we hear the stories, sing the songs, pray the ancient prayers, it is as if God is taking us home to meet the family—to learn something of his character and his heart by seeing the company that he keeps.

This is one reason that I encourage and try to practice entering into Israel’s story. Three practices I might suggest are these. First, pray the Psalms. The liturgical collection in Scripture that makes up the book of Psalms has been the prayer book and hymnal of the people of God throughout the ages. Every conceivable emotion is contained in its pages: every possible struggle we face, every longing we experience. I learned to lament, to grieve honestly and openly to my God, through the Psalms. I continue to learn the language of praise and adoration through the Psalms. As I’ve said so many times, we do not learn to talk in an English or Grammar class. We learned to speak by mimicking those who already knew. Prayer is no different: we learn to communicate and commune with the One who made us by mimicking the masters we find in the Psalms.

Second, I would encourage all of us to “go East.” Although there is much in the Western historical and philosophical heritage to be embraced and appreciated, the faith revealed in Scripture is an Eastern tradition. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was a Jewish man. To know him, then, we must know the Story that defined his life, the Story of Israel. One great resource I have been given in recent years is the website, Ray Vanderlaan’s online resource to help Jesus followers reconnect with our Jewish roots. He has a brief slide presentation on the site to help people understand the difference between Eastern and Western thought. I also have appreciated the book by Philip Yancey called The Bible Jesus Read, which opens up the Old Testament and its worldview as the framing story of Jesus. Another resource I’d mention is any of N.T. Wright’s historical material—the chapter on Israel in Simply Christian, or for particularly ambitious readers, his work Jesus and the Victory of God, which explores how Jesus’ mission and activity was defined by the Jewish mindset and expectations of his time.

The final practice to help us meet the family of God in Israel is to see their stories as our stories. At its simplest, this means to actually attend to the Old Testament texts and to allow God to shape us and locate us in that narrative. A friend put me on to a phenomenal article by Donald Miller (on the one thing that will allow you to “rise above your peers,” i.e., reading great books: and this sentence struck me as strangely familiar: “I started reading Shakespeare, even though I didn’t understand him. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand him, because I could understand parts, and the parts were worth the reading of the whole.” I feel the same way about the stories and writings of the Old Testament. Let’s be honest: parts of the Old Testament seem so distant from our time and understanding that it makes reading them difficult. But in those same pages there are also countless stories, prayers, experiences and testimonies of God interacting with his people that stir our souls in such a way to make it worth the effort. As my beautiful bride put it so well the other day, “I feel different when I open the Bible; just reading this book affects me in ways that no other writing does.”

At least in my better moments, I long to know God. I long to connect with the One who has given me life and given life to this world. I long to know his Son, who is willing to sacrifice everything so the world might be renewed and reconciled to his Father. And I long to know the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who works on the stage of human history to consummate the Father’s plan. I sense this God calling me, and all who share this longing, to come and “meet the family” in the Story of Israel.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Seeing Jesus in Surprising Places

Sunday we talked about the glorious Christ hymn in John chapter one. Most of my life, when I’ve read this passage, I focus on the Trinity part: “the Word was God.” Or, I find myself marveling at the incarnation, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Or, I am captivated by the picture of God’s intimacy with the Son and with us: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

But this Sunday we leaned into the line in verse 4: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.” That one word astounds me: “all.” With our perceptions of God, we expect the passage to read something like: “that life was the light of his people” or “that life was the light of faithful people“or “that life was the light of good people.” But, astonishingly he says that the Word of God, the Christ of God, is the light of all people. And so, as we discussed this week, this means that Jesus shows up, revealing God, in surprising places. We will find elements of His truth, goodness, light and life, as one has put it, “even outside of the Christian franchise.”

Now, let’s be clear: that does not mean that “all paths lead to God,” or all truth is relative. Instead, I believe this passage helps us see that, if you encounter truth, goodness, wonder, or light in the world, you can be confident that the ultimate source of that light is the Son of God—whether or not the source of that truth has a “Christian” label on it. So, followers of Jesus have a great opportunity: to embrace and claim truth, wherever we find it. We also are called to great humility, as we marvel at how and through whom God chooses to work (not the least surprising is his astounding promise to work through broken people like me and anybody else who claims membership in a church).

One of the first people who helped me pay attention to this part of the Christ hymn is Augustine. Long ago, when confronted with questions about the relationship between Christian thought and pagan philosophy, Augustine invited believers to claim any truth they find, whatever the source, and to use it for the service of the Gospel. Here is his argument, using a brilliant analogy of Israel’s departure from Egypt:

If those who are called philosophers…have said anything which is true and consistent with our faith, we must not reject it, but claim it for our own use…. The Egyptians possessed idols and heavy burdens, which the children of Israel hated and from which they fled; however, they also possessed vessels of gold and silver and clothes which our forebears, in leaving Egypt, took for themselves in secret, intending to use them in a better manner (Ex 3:21-22; 12:35-36)…. In the same way, pagan learning is not entirely made up of false teachings and superstitions…. It contains also some excellent teachings, well suited to be used by truth, and excellent moral values. Indeed, some truths are even found among them which relate to the worship of the one God. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not invent themselves, but which they dug out of the mines of providence of God, which are scattered throughout the world…. The Christian, therefore, can separate these truths from their unfortunate associations, take them away, and put them to their proper use for the proclamation of the gospel (excerpt from On Christian Doctrine, cited in Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 6).

What I find so compelling is not just that Augustine acknowledges truth even from pagan sources (as Paul did so many years before, see Acts 17:22-28); but that he recognizes the ultimate source of that truth in God himself. He sees God revealing himself in many diverse avenues, “scattered throughout the world.”

I just wonder how different our world and our relationships might be, if those of us who follow Jesus would begin our interactions with those around us by asking, where do I see Jesus in this person or situation? Too often, Christians lead with judgment. Now, there is a place for honest, respectful critique of harmful paths and ways. But I long for Christians today to be known more as people who seek truth—or better yet, who seek Truth (the Person and not just ideas, John 14:6)—wherever we might find it. I thank my God that he has chosen to reveal the light of his Son to and through all people.