Thursday, October 15, 2020

I never cry. Or hardly ever. Just ask my wife. But the local football first and probably only one for the year due to Covid restrictions...wearing my mask...standing next to my daughter...watching the flag raised as we sang the national anthem. Tonight I cried.

I cried because of what that flag means. I cried because of what it represents. I cried because this year is so burdensome and tiring and people are all sorts of overwhelmed and at the end of themselves. But there I stood. With my hand over my heart and familiar words mumbled through mask. Until the emotion was more powerful than my voice and I just watched. And cried.

That flag doesn't mean a political party. It doesn't mean a color. Or a creed. Or a religion. It is the bi-product of people who have tried for 250 years to get it right. And we've failed sometimes. We've failed miserably. Yet here we are these couple of centuries later...still trying. And some people kneel during the anthem as a a sign they are broken. And some people carry signs on street corners. And some people run for political office. And others feed the hungry and help the hurting.

But what we should all be pursuing is the ideal behind that flag: that human value is inherently given only by our Creator. And, therefore, it is not the job of any man or woman, no matter their position, title, or power to demean or devalue another. We've not always gotten this right as a country. Our history is scattered with examples of our failure. We stand today on the grounds of horrid mistakes. But also of heroic sacrifice. Our worse points and our best define who we have become.
And some day, my friends, some day this election and this pandemic and this year will be over. And on that day we will have to look around at each other. Who will we see? Enemies or brothers? What will we feel? Hate or compassion? The one thing that flag is always supposed to have represented was our commonality as humans. It is what unites. Not divides.

And this country represented by that flag is the greatest in the whole of human history. But it will not stay so if we cannot see each other as valuable. No political party is the answer. No news network can provide the solution. Our choice to love is the do what is best for my neighbor regardless of whether it is best for me.

So, whether you are inclined to stand in pride or kneel in sorrow, today I joined my heart with yours. I stood and cried. I want America to live up to her ideals. To try again. Though we've fallen so hard.

For the land of the free...and the home of the brave.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Freedom and the Christian Ideal

"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them..."

And so, with these beautifully penned words at the outset of perhaps one of the most impressive letters ever written, began what has now become an almost 250 year love affair between the United States of America and the notion of freedom.

This love has produced perhaps the most impressive form of government ever seen on Earth. One that is "of the people, by the people, and for the people." It has brought about ingenuity, a pursuit of justice, a love of liberty, and a defense of the ideals of individual value and security around the world. It has made this land the greatest place to live in the entirety of human history.

And, it has given itself over to a massive misunderstanding on the part of the inhabitants of this great nation: we've become convinced that independence and freedom are the same.  They are not.

In my experience, this confusion has become particularly pronounced for those whose political persuasion leans towards less government involvement in their lives. Maybe it is because I live in rural America, where local control and individual rights are king. Maybe it is because of my religious culture, that focusses on personal morality and relationship with God.  Maybe it is because of suspicion that government and mainstream media are "out to ruin our way of life."

What I fear is this: in our pursuit of defending freedom, we (conservative, white, evangelical Christians) have begun to worship at the altar of independence.

Nowhere in the founding documents of our country does it say that independence is what those great minds were actually searching for. They wanted freedom. Freedom to live, to participate in government, to be part of the process, to have representation, to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. This is what they wanted. They wanted to have that in the context of existing as part of the British Empire, the greatest country in the world at that time. When this was found to be impossible, they pursued independence as a way of preserving freedom. Independence was a necessary means to an end.

Why is this such an important distinction?  Because if there is one thing the first 6 months of 2020 has taught us, it is this: Some Americans hate being told what to do. Hate it. Like, really hate it.  And, sadly, many of these who so hate being told what to do hail from our tribe (us conservative, white, evangelical folks).  While Christians should be at the forefront of focussing on the greater good and willingly sacrificing our preferences for the needs of others, we instead have seemingly become some of the loudest voices of complaint for not getting our own way.

We are told "You have to wear a mask to help protect others."

We respond with "You can't make me and the science behind masks is bogus."

We are told "Businesses and schools need to close to stop a possible pandemic spread."

We respond with "You are Nazis who are taking away my rights."

We are told "The African American community is reeling and suffering."

We respond with "my life matters as much as theirs."

We are told "The Confederate flag sends a harmful message to black America".

We respond with "don't tell me how to celebrate my heritage."

The list could go on.

And with each of these we hear uttered that foundational statement of our culture: "It is a free country.  If what I do offends you, ignore it, but don't tell me how to live my life."

The message those words really send is this: "I'm not responsible for how my actions make you feel."

And maybe, when wars of independence are needed in order to sustain freedom from oppressors, this mantra is fair. But, let's be honest.  Wars for independence come along maybe once every lifetime or two.  Our own story has seen 244 years pass since we had to fight that fight.  When people, especially anyone who claims the authority of Jesus Christ in their life, use this as an excuse to be able to say, do, or act however they want without concern for how others perceive that behavior, we have gone too far. We have exchanged the beauty of freedom (liberty and justice for all) for the selfishness of independence (what is convenient for me).

In theology, we  sometimes speak of salvation (which one could easily exchange for the word freedom) in two ways. Salvation from sin and salvation to good works (or Spirit filled living).  In other words, God frees us from the bondage and eternal consequences of our sinful behavior and this freedom allows us to then pursue the life we were really intended to live: one of righteousness and love.

I believe the same application can be made in our culture today.  We are free. Free from oppressive dictators, from police states, from generational monarchs, and from religious persecution.  But we are also free to do certain things.  Free to love our neighbor. Free to love our enemy. Free to vote for what is best for the whole, not just best for me. Free to worship. Free to be engaged in sociopolitical processes that really help all people.  Freedom becomes the vehicle by which we work for the good of others, not the good of ourselves.

None of our precious freedoms in this country mean a blessed thing if we are so busy worshipping our own independence that we can't get over our selfish desires in order to care about the needs of others. Jesus put it this way: "The second greatest commandment is this: to love your neighbor as yourself." Not that you should love your neighbor so long as doing so doesn't infringe on your own identity or comfortable status.  Love them like you love yourself.

I argue that the notion of independence as a God given value is found nowhere in Scripture. Freedom, yes. Independence, no. Because independence must always bow to the rule of divine love. My independence is not nearly as important as my caring for others.  We are bound to the rest of humanity by the Good who created us all. And our desire to imitate Him must lead us to care primarily about them, whether we are comfortable with it or not.

We Americans also confuse the ideals of freedom and control. Just because something is out of our control does not mean we have lost our freedom. It may mean that in order to best protect freedom for the whole, control cannot be given to each individual.

Let us consider an example: I know my black brothers and sisters feelings towards all that the Confederate flag stands for.  I know I have the freedom to fly it or not to fly it. But, because I'm not an independent person, because I'm called to bear their burdens, and because I love them like I love myself...I cannot condone flying that flag.  My freedom pushes me away from independent thinking and drives me to pursue what is genuinely best for someone else. I'm not a unit of one. I am part of a heavenly brotherhood.

I am sickened when I hear people of Christian faith defend any selfish actions by saying "it's a free country." The last I checked, we were citizens of a greater country. One whose builder and maker is God. A kingdom whose own prince set aside His heavenly  glory and came to earth to willingly sacrifice Himself for us who rebelled against His rule.

And that country is not only some far off futuristic mansion in the sky. It is also the kingdom of heaven that is at hand. Right now. Some people may be shocked to find that their place in that future eternal kingdom may be predicated on their behavior towards their fellow man in this present one.  As Jesus put it in the Gospel of Matthew, there will come a day when those who are denied entrance into eternal glory will discover to their horror that it was their treatment of "the least of these" that determined their forever destiny.

God's primary interest in every area of our lives is that we would become more holy. That we would look more and more like Him. This certainly also pertains to our residency as citizens of this country. Our independence, our individualism, and our preferences are all secondary.  They are valuable, perhaps, but secondary.  God wants to make us holy.  And we cannot be holy while being focussed on ourselves.
What we mean when we use the excuse "it is a free country" is that it is one full of independent people. And that, my friends, is a dangerous reality. We are free. Yes we are. Whoever the Son sets free is free indeed. Free to serve others. Free to care about others feelings. Free to be inconvenienced for the sake of the whole. Free to love.

We must love one another. We must care more for others than ourselves.

It's the Christian thing to do.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Self-Preservation and the Christian Ideal

There he sat in front of me.  A man I barely knew...and that only for a short while.  An admitted struggle with mental illness and substance abuse.  Well intended in many ways, but hardly trustworthy. His family broken, job prospects fallen by the wayside, nowhere to go and even fewer people to turn to for aid.  We had happened upon each other quite by accident, or so it seemed.  A brief conversation had led to a few casual meetings.  I had tried to learn as much as I could about the situation.  What I found out was discouraging, almost hopeless.

I was a young and inexperienced husband and father and an even less experienced pastor. Trying to answer questions and give guidance to someone whose needs I didn't understand. I had my own family to consider and my own interests to protect, but here he sat...what was I going to do?

So on that night I returned home and, like we have on many other occasions, my bride and I discussed how we could be Jesus to this man. It is cold out.  We have plenty of room.  An entire house in fact. We are getting ready to leave for a few days.  This new dream home we just purchased will be sitting empty.  It is miserably cold here in Michigan in December.  Staying in his vehicle just was not a viable option.

Really, what would Jesus do?

We quickly reached the same conclusion we have come to again and again...whether our money, vehicle, home, or goods.  Give it to them. Let them use it. Risk the loss for the good of the cross...that shining example of when God gave up all He had for us, the ones who couldn't be trusted.

And so this stranger, this uncertain case, this potentially dangerous man...made his home in our home.  We couldn't have known where that would lead.

As I observe the socio-political realities of our country today, there is much discussion by the supposed Evangelical Christian movement about our need to preserve our way of life and our freedoms in this, the greatest country the world has ever known:
  • Don't let in too many immigrants from the south...they may take our jobs.
  • Don't let in too many immigrants from the mid east...they may blow up our homes.
  • Don't trust those opposite the political aisle...they don't love America or care about us.
  • Vote for and support individuals who are willing to be harsh and's the only way to ensure our religious freedoms are protected.
  • Turn a blind eye to questionable leadership or personal's okay as long as it results in restoring our preferred way of living.
  • Don't question motives or tactics or will only erode our chances of keeping our politically preferred persons in power.
  • Don't regulate the things we are comfortable with; but be fairly harsh on the ones we are not...that way things can get back to the way they "used" to be for us.

God help us. When did being a Christian become about self-preservation?  When did my wants, needs, and even fears become the determining factor in how I love, welcome, and treat other people, even my enemies? 

My attention is drawn these days to two passages of Scripture:

In John 4 Jesus was traveling from Judea to Galilee.  In order to do so He had to pass through Samaria. If you examine a map of the area, you see that, indeed, Samaria lies smack in between these two locations. But does that mean Jesus "had" go that way in order to reach His destination?  I think not. Jews had been making a habit of avoiding Samaria, and its occupants, for a very long time. Though it added miles to the trip, He could have travelled the edge of Samaria, turned north, and still arrived in the southern part of Galilee.

But He did not. In fact, as John casually states, "He had to go through Samaria".  Why?  Why did He have to go through Samaria?  Was the will of the Father drawing Him that way?  Was the encounter He was about to have with this Samaritan woman the goal all along?  This uncomfortable, potentially hazardous, racially charged encounter...but one that would become redemptive.  It was the work of the cross, the dying to self, the lack of concern for self preservation. This is why He had to go through Samaria.  So He did.  And met there that woman.  His enemy by all accounts.  He met her and transformed her life, and the lives of many of her neighbors and friend.  Also His supposed enemies.

We move to Matthew 16.  Peter admits to Jesus and the other disciples his belief that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.  In response, Jesus instructs Peter and the rest that He must (there is that word again) go to Jerusalem. He must suffer.  He must.

Peter feels a responsibility to take the Master aside and let Him know this cannot be. Jesus cannot go to Jerusalem. There is too much risk. Too many people who hate Him.  Too many enemies.  Too many of those people.

Jesus does not thank Peter for his concern.  Instead, He rebukes Peter. He must go to Jerusalem. It is the way to the cross.  It is the reason He came. It is His very identity. He is more concerned with those He came to save than with His own comfort or safety.  In rebuking Peter, Jesus clearly defines this interest in self-preservation: it is the character of Satan himself. It is a mindset that favors not the interests of God, but the interests of man.  In other words, when we are worried more about our own interests, even the interests of our very existence, over the call to sacrifice for others, we miss the cross.  We miss the place of grace.

Peter spent most of his life avoiding people who didn't think or look like He did...until the Lord delivered him from it. But the Apostle Paul, the man God used to confront Peter's hypocrisy, gives excellent information on what it means for a Christian to relinquish self-preservation in exchange for the good of others.

Romans 12:20-21
"But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

There is something intrinsically Christ-like in the people we serve.  Even if they are our enemies or strangers.  They become the identity of Jesus to us (see Matthew 25:34-45).  When we choose to minister to others, even those who despise us, we are not only doing the work of Jesus, we are taking on His character.  And we are serving the Lord Himself.  

The Christian's interaction with his enemy?  If he is in need, help him.

The approach of  many of us Evangelical Americans to our enemies in 2017?  If we have to turn back some innocent and needy people (inside or outside of our borders) in order to better preserve ourselves, our way of life, our preferences, and our country...well, that's the cost those people will just have to pay.  If we have to be mean or ruthless or hardhearted or turn a blind eye because we don't like someone, or their stances, or their statistics...well, this is our country and we have to protect it.

Have I always been as kind and helpful and selfless as I should?  Sadly, no. Have I been taken advantage of or lost out because I tried to help someone?  Absolutely.  I've been stolen from, lied to, lied about, had personal property lost and damaged.

But when I think of Jesus, I think of the call to the cross. I must go to my enemies. I must run the risk of my loss in order to gain the cross.  The cross.  The place where all are equal in their need of grace.  I may run the risk of losing out.  Losing my goods, my status, my comfortable lifestyle, my preferences, even my life.  When Jesus finishes pointing out Peter's selfishness in Matthew 16, He turns to look at the rest of the disciples and instructs them: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life  will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it."

Want to succeed in the eyes of Christ?  Want to have riches beyond compare in the economy of the Kingdom?  Want to follow Jesus and learn all that He is?  Take up the cross.  The place of death.  Abandon the idol of self preservation.  The only way you save your life is to relinquish your hold on it altogether.

The man who sat across from me that night? The one with nowhere to go except the home of a pastor he barely knew?  He was eventually returned to a reconciled relationship with his wife. He lives with her and their children in the new home they moved to.  They found a church, immersed themselves in a body of believers, and  recommitted themselves to Christ and each other.  He didn't steal a thing.  In fact, the house was cleaner and in better condition than we had left it.

Perhaps this is why I am so disappointed in many of my Evangelical friends.  I believe they love Jesus.  I don't think they wish ill for people.  But I fear we have become too comfortable insisting on the protection of our own rights at the dehumanizing of others.  Perhaps it is naive to hope we would insist on a Biblical model when it comes to how we treat the outcast, the foreigner, the opponent, or the enemy.  We live in a post-Christian society.  But maybe, for those who claim the name of Christ, it is not too much to ask.

Maybe some of us will always believe in self preservation in order to maintain our status as "the greatest country in the world".  Maybe some will always justify holding back hundreds or thousands of people in legitimate need of our love and support just to avoid the small percentage of terrorists, criminals, or malcontents among them.  Maybe some of us will never find it problematic to demonize our opponents in order to worship our own ideology and make ourselves feel more at peace with the world.  Maybe.  But I fear in doing so many of us will miss the call to the cross.  We will miss the call to be like Him.  To become everything that is exactly contrary to our natural human inclinations.

Whenever we allow anything, whether country, ego, or self-interest, to overshadow the Lordship of Jesus, we become idolaters.  Maybe that is the religion some of us have.  But it is not the way to imitate Christ.  

Call it protectionism, call it nationalism, call it it whatever you want.  Just don't call it Christianity. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Apologizing...It's Not Very Christian

I must begin with a request...if you're going to read this post, you have to read all the way to the end.
None of this getting mad halfway through over apparent heresy and giving up.  Trust me.  I think you'll be glad you did.  I know I'll feel better.
Now that we've entered into that completely non-binding and one sided agreement, let me say this:
Apologizing is not Biblical.
There you have it.  Now you know, are least in part, why I made you agree to read to the end.  Saying you are sorry for things you have done wrong is a practice of spiritual discipline we have been taught since before we were young enough to even know the implications of right and wrong behavior.
We've all done it as parents:  Our little cherub finally reveals the existence of his or her sinful nature and strays from the straight and narrow.  If we are fortunate enough to have more than one child it is usually first manifested as aggression towards a sibling.  Taking a toy.  Striking in anger.  Lying.  Biting.  Something.  At least in these instances we are able to contain the offense to the boundaries of our own home.  Heaven forbid the youngster make such transgressions out in public-on the playground, at school, in the grocery store!!  But in any case, the scene is usually the same: after sufficiently explaining the error of their ways we generally then make a simple request of the child: "say you're sorry".
It doesn't end there.  When we emerge into the older childhood years of life, we begin to be instructed more fully in the concept of what we do if we seek forgiveness for something we have done amiss.  We need to apologize.  We need to say we are sorry.  Even our initial introduction to the forgiving grace of Christ in the Gospel sounds something like this: you need to tell God you are sorry for your sins.  Which means: apologize for what you've done wrong.
It doesn't end there.  As teens we are encouraged to apologize to authority figures when we are disrespectful, to teachers when our homework isn't done, and to our boss when we are late for work.
It doesn't end there.  As adults we get ourselves into complicated interpersonal relationships, not the least of which may be marriage.  In doing so, we undoubtedly hurt people sometimes.  We say mean things on occasion. Sometimes we are outright nasty.  As parents we sometimes find ourselves committing the very behaviors we chide our children for.  The remedy?  You guessed it...we need to apologize.  Say we are sorry.
Before you think that I'm going to try to make the argument that all of these notions of "being sorry" for the things we do wrong are unchristian, cool your jets.  I believe just the opposite.  Recognizing where we have erred and feeling sorrow over our state of behavior is a very good place to be.  Oh that more people would spend time reflecting on their behaviors and attitudes to examine if their spirit is aligned with truth.
However, my premise is this: saying you are sorry is not necessarily synonymous with sorrow.  Apologizing not the same as seeking forgiveness.  The first is an action of the lips.  The second a matter of the heart.
So, why do I say that apologizing is not very Christian?  Primarily because the concept as we know it appears next to nowhere in Scripture.  In fact, the Greek word apologia only appears 8 times in the New Testament.  Of those, 5 have to do with providing a defense for the Gospel (since the word literally means to give a speech in defense of).  The three others refer to giving a defense for ones own behavior.  Neither of these mean to say you are sorry for something.
Speaking of the word "sorry", let's examine that one as well: it shows up once in the New Testament, where its meaning is "to be sad".  Of its 8 uses in the Old Testament, it usually means  to pity/comfort someone.  Only once does it refer to someone being apologetic (contemporary meaning).  This instance is found in Ezekiel where the Lord is referring to Himself and says He will not be sorry for the action He is about to take.
To summarize, the Bible never seems to talk about an apology in the way we often use the word today.  Why?  Because God is always more concerned with the state of the heart than a manufactured admittance of possible guilt.  This is critical for us to understand.  Apologies can be meaningful, but too often are given as lip service to a possible offense.  Many times they come with no admittance of culpability on the part of the offender and leave the reconciliation of a relationship completely up to the offended on "accepting" the apology.
This is what we train our children to do.  It is how I was taught...and probably you were, too.  The formula goes like this:
Offender does something wrong.
Offended registers a complaint with the offender or higher authority (parent)
Offender apologizes with or without admitting guilt
Offended "accepts apology" or says "it's ok"
Unless of course, you're my son...who when I tried to teach him to accept someone's apology to him, generally screams at the top of his lungs "it's not ok!!!!".  Remember that sinful nature I referred to earlier?  Still working on that.
My point is this: there is a more excellent way.  And it doesn't have so much to do with saying something other than "I'm sorry".  Those are completely acceptable words.  It doesn't have to do with not accepting apologies.  Of course we should.  But there is so much more to it than that, and if we don't grasp this something more then many relationships will never be healed because we grow up to be adults who want to mumble our apologies and go on our way. There has to be a more excellent way.
What is this more excellent way?  It's called Confession.
But aren't confessing and apologizing the same thing?  They are not.  Again we return to the Biblical evidence:
In the Old Testament, 16 times the idea of confession is used as a description for action of the hands.  Either lifting hands in praise or thanks or bemoaning the state of things by wringing ones hands.  In the first case, the gesture is made to signify a relationship between the one "confessing" and the one to whom they are confessing.  In the second case, the one confessing is recognizing the wrong of a situation.
In the New Testament, the word confession is used to mean agree, covenant, or acknowledge.  It draws the picture of someone who is professing something to be true.  In the context of confessing something to God or another person, then, it means we are admitting its truth.  If we have done something wrong, we are admitting the error of our ways.  Being sorry?  Yes.  In fact, as the Old Testament might show us, we are saying we are sick over our behavior.  But it is even more than that.  We are calling as truth the way God sees our behavior.  We are admitting the sinfulness of how we chose to behave.
Nowhere in Scripture is this more clear than I John 1:9.  "If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins..."
Confession, not apology, is the precedent for God forgiving us.  That changes things a bit, does it not?
And James 5:16 lays out for us how this affects human relationships.   "Confess your sins to one another...". Apparently confession, which leads to healing, is not just a Divine/Human exchange. It is also a Human/Human exchange.
But if confession is just admitting something is true, can't you confess without being sorry?  Well, you could. If you only went by the technical definition. But remember, confession in the Christian sense is to affirm that God's view of us is accurate. So you could admit you did something without being sorry, but you could never Biblically confess it without being so. In other words, you could say you were sorry without meaning it, but you could not confess without Godly sorrow.
Too many people enjoy the apology in a relationship because it requires very little of them. Confession takes much more.
So, the question is, can you apologize without thinking you were wrong? Yes, because apologizing can be an empty exercise of the will. But Christians are not called to apologize. They are called to confess.
Can you say you are sorry just to make a relationship better? Yes but it is only sorrow that will truly help to heal. And sorrow is a function of confession.
Can we still teach our kids to apologize? Only as a part of admission of guilt and desire to change. In other words only as part of seeing themselves as God sees them.  This is true confession.
Remorse should lead to admission of guilt which should lead to repentance which should lead to changed behavior. This is true confession.
What, then,  does this suggest about forgiveness?  I have long struggled over whether or not someone can be forgiven for something they have not apologized for. And the answer is found in this better way.
Willingness to forgive is a state of the heart. Christians are called to not hold against wrongdoers the things they have done.
The ability to forgive is a state of behavior. It is based on the confession of the perpetrator and the offer of forgiveness from the offended.
Reconciliation is a state of relationship that should stem from the action of forgiveness.
This is clearly on display in our relationship with God. He is willing to forgive. It is His nature. He will take the action to forgive if we confess. This forgiveness leads to a reconciled relationship with us, His lost children.
So, can we not forgive unless someone truly confesses?  You can choose not to hold their wrong against them, but forgiveness is an exchange between two people. And it begins with the admission of the truth...the reality of the way things are. It starts with confession.
Confession is more involved, more difficult, more painful. That is why it accomplishes more. It takes all the good parts of apologizing, of being sorrowful, and takes them to a new, deeper level. It leaves the fate of the offender in the hands of the offended. But, the offended, pursuing the nature of God, has no choice but to offer forgiveness. Or else they themselves become offenders.
What shall we say then to all of this?  What should we do?  How should we live?  Pursue the more excellent way. Seek a new status of the heart. Become a Confessor. It is the Christian thing to do.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

It Is Dark this Christmas

It is dark.  This time of the year there is more nighttime in Michigan than there is of day.  I've always thought the darkness was one of the best parts of the Advent and Christmas season.  How can we appreciate all of the lights if they are not cast on the dark backdrop of frosty moonlit  void?

Even many of our songs reflect this dark reality of the season.  Silent night, holy night...O holy night, the stars are brightly shining...In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth still hard as iron...It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old...O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie, above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

It is, in fact, the darkness surrounding the light...the light of stars, the light of candles, the light reflected from snow, and even the light of electric is the darkness that makes the light all the more poignant.  And this, I think, is how it was meant to be.  The darkness making us drawn to the light.

One of the dearest Christmas verses to me in all the Scripture is not found in the account of Mary or Joseph.  Not in the angels or shepherds.  Not in stars or Magi or even in the manger where the baby Jesus was laid.  No, instead it is found in the picture perfect account of St. John (1:5):

             "The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it"

This is it.  The Word was made flesh.  He came to dwell among us.  We beheld His glory, full of grace and truth.  And it was a light shining in the darkness.

Perhaps this is why we are so drawn to lights at Christmas.  They are pretty and mesmerizing, to be sure, but there is something so much more.  It is light casting out its beams of hope against the dark backdrop of nothingness.  It is reflective of the true Light who came...likewise casting hope for all of mankind against the dark emptiness of sin and hate and woundedness and humans posturing for positions of wealth and power.

So whenever we see the lights, we should think of That Light.

It is dark, yes.  But generally I find that dark to be comforting for it gives me warmth in the light.

One of my favorite experiences every year is sitting in the dark with just the tree lit...hundreds of little reminders of the the Incarnate One who came to shine in the darkness.

But as I sit here this night...I feel more angry at the dark.  Somehow this time around I see the blackness not so much as a backdrop to the lights I am warmed by, but rather a part of me I am bitter towards.  It is dark and I am unsettled.

I fear my children most often see me not as their loving father but as a hard to please taskmaster.  Always driving them to do the next thing...and do it up to my standards.

I fear my church isn't seeing enough converts for Christ.  That while I do my best and everyone pretty much seems satisfied with my pastoring...I don't set a very good example in pursuing the lost.  People in my community don't know Jesus, and I'm not doing enough about it.

I fear the warped mess of emotions, attitudes, and behaviors that characterize certain relationships I once cherished will never be unraveled.  I see little hope and I know people are hurting and I can't fix it.

I fear for those closest to me.  The ones whose health and stamina and hope are all under attack.  I wonder if any answers can be expected for them, for us.  I wonder if they can depend on me.

I fear I am a hypocrite.  That my love for Jesus borders on rhetoric.  I so often feel nothing.  I am coming to believe emotion is to be mostly absent in this most precious relationship of all.

I fear I do not know for certain the things I should.  My answers fall short.  I have gaps in my confidence in truth.

I fear.  I fear many things.  And as I fear, I feel.  I feel the darkness.  Not the darkness of the outside pressing down upon my light, but the darkness of my inside growing and threatening to extinguish every light around me.  Darkness is no longer a romantic balance to the light of Christmas.  It is a disease, an all consuming disease.

But then I think, but the Light shined in the darkness. And here I have to force myself to pause.  NO, the Light did not just come to shine in the darkness.  He came to shine in MY darkness.  His advent was meant to be taken personally.  His incarnation is the relationship of God to man, not God to darkness.

Just like the Jewish leaders of that 1st century, I am inclined to see the coming of the Messiah as an event for the purging of the darkness around me.  A way for truth to win out over superstition and misled mankind and evil people.  But that is all secondary.  You see, if the Light is to shine in the darkness, it must begin by shining in my darkness.  For what is that darkness out there but a manifestation of all the darkness I harbor within myself?

And now my mind begins to race back to the beginning.  When that all powerful Word which was from the beginning spoke His first commands...into the darkness.  And He said "let there be light!"  Yes, I am certain He said this in an exclamatory fashion, for He was looking at that which had light, no form, no meaning...and He was calling it into something.  He was giving it purpose.  In fact, could it be that by declaring that there should be such a thing as light in this darkness He was insisting He Himself would be the source of all that proceeded thereafter?

And this Light that shone in that darkness then went on to see water and sky, trees and mountains, fish and birds, animals and man formed for His own good pleasure.  Yes, my very own existence in this creation was because that Light, that Word, was more than just a cry out against the was a divine interest in a relationship with me.

And now my mind leaps to the end of the story.  Where I am told of a new heaven and new earth where this Light, this God-man, will be forever worshiped in the eternal bliss of relationship between Himself and His most beloved creation...His bride, of which I am part.  And in that that never ending harmony...there will be no night there.  For the Light that was from the beginning will be the all that is needed.  I think this must be so much more than just the fact the sun will no longer be necessary.  Indeed, my own attempts at pushing back the darkness I fear within and around me will no longer be necessary.  A backdrop of emptiness will no longer be required in order for me to better appreciate the light.  For this Light will be more grand and glorious and real than ever I could have imagined.

But wait.  The Light spoke in the beginning.  The Light will shine in paradise forever.  But that same Light has come to shine in my darkness here and now.  I need not wait for eternity in the city of God in order to experience that Light shining in my darkness.  My fears, my inadequacies, my failing, my misery...indeed all my darkness...are subject to this Light even now.  For Advent is the hope brought, not by some ancient story, nor by some fanciful dream, but by the presence of God in the flesh.  In the present.  In this moment.

Whatever I lack He measures out to me if I but let Him.

Wherever I fail He forgives me if I will only accept it.

However I cease to represent or to proclaim Him He still miraculously shows Himself faithful if I am humble enough to acknowledge it.

When I am certain my own strength is sufficient He gently reminds me He is all I need if I will trust.

This is the beauty of the Light shining in my darkness.  And what I find is that as my darkness is dispelled, the darkness of others is also.  The miracle of Advent moves on from me to transform the community to which I belong and the world in which I exist.

It is dark.  Not just out there, but in me.  But I peer into the abyss and I see the glimmer of my fearful soul...grounded in the the only thing I know for certain.  I am loved.  And that is the light I need.  I wish I knew more.  I wish I held all the answers, but I do not.  But I am loved with an everlasting love that springs from the very nature of the God who created me and called me out of the darkness and into His marvelous light.

So here I shall remain.  In the Light.  Surrounded by darkness, but in the Light, nonetheless.  And that is Advent...the Light has come and I choose to abide in it.  I want it no other way.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

I Am a Christian -- A Contemporary Wesleyan Definition from an Historical Perspective

John Wesley’s Letter to a Roman Catholic, July 18, 1749 was an attempt at articulating some of the misunderstandings and animosities of that era between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  In this letter, Mr. Wesley defined himself as a follower of Christ rather than by his affiliations with people who would claim a certain religious title as their strongest evidence of Christianity.  In considering the ecumenical spirit Mr. Wesley portrays in his writings, I ponder my own place in church history.  When I say I am a Christian, or even a Christian of the Wesleyan tradition, what do I mean?  My attempt to answer this question is as follows:   
I am a Christian.  My identity is found in the One, Christ Jesus, who gave His life so I could be forgiven of and cleansed from sin.  I am a Christian because my desire, my aim, my longing is to be Christ-like.  This is the definition of a true Christian.  When others see me, I want them to have a glimpse of Christ because I am a Christian.  I want to mirror Him in action and heart.  I am washed in the blood of the God-man who was raised on a cross two thousand years ago atop a hill called Golgotha.  I am a product of the hope and power that comes from the triumphant resurrection of this God-man from the dead.  I am a Christian; nothing else matters or makes sense.  I am a Christian because God has revealed Himself to me through His Son as related by the Church and the Scriptures through His Spirit.
While I desire nothing more than to be called a Christian, there are other descriptors by which I may be known.  For too long society, and even our Christian sector of it, has sought to label people as one extreme identity or another.  If you are left you cannot be right.  Holding certain beliefs must keep you from adopting others.  While this is true in part, a close examination of myself has led me to believe I am many things.  Some of these seem to be in tension with each other, but I have nonetheless found them all to be present within me.  The catalyst for each movement within Christendom has been an important point of truth, and while many denominations and churches have strayed from their founding tenets of faith, I find I identify with many different groups, at least in their original and pure forms.  I do not adhere to the statements of faith of many Christian denominations or churches, but as I study history and Scripture, I find many truly Christian ideas have been expressed at one time or another by organizations who now may seem far from me in theology and practice.  For this reason, while I am Christian, I can also be known in some capacity as the following:
I am catholic.  To be catholic is to believe in the universal and holy Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.  I desire to have fellowship with all those who rightly name His name.  Anyone who believes Christ is who He claimed to be and is willing to act accordingly is my sister or brother.  The Church is not bound to my fallible understandings or judgments of who should be allowed to participate.  Neither is it confined to those in my area, my state, my country, my world, or my time period.  Many Christians have preceded me and many will come after me.  I am catholic because I believe that by the sacrament of God’s grace given to us through the sacrifice of our Lord, all who know Him personally are my fellow Christians. I am catholic.
I am protestant.  With the protesters against complacency in the church I affirm we are to be everything the Scriptures have called us to be and nothing the Scriptures condemn.  I agree with the tenets of the faith so aptly described by men willing to call the Church from its superstitions and ignorant practices to an approach of theology based on the Bible.  While I have never had to risk my life by standing for correct teaching, I identify with the desire to have truth at any cost.  Official acceptance by the Church is only as good as the doctrines upon which that Church stands.  I am a protestant because I believe at times men and women of faith are called to be the voice of reason within the Body.  I am protestant.
I am orthodox.  I believe in the straight and narrow way.  I believe in orthodoxy: the correct way of interacting with God the Creator.  I accept the creeds of the Church and the implications they have in my life.  I believe in worshipping our holy God with every part of my being.  I desire to see accurate teaching passed from generation to generation throughout the history of the Church.  I believe there is more to the Church than our current understandings or culture.  In some ways the Church is to be above culture while interacting with it.  For this reason, congregations and their leaders must provide the correct blueprint for interacting with and understanding our divine Creator and Master.  This is orthodoxy, and I proudly claim it as my heritage.
I am evangelical.  I accept our Master’s call to go to the entire world and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15).  To evangelize is one of the highest callings of the people of God.  It is the responsibility of His followers to share the truth of His death and resurrection with those who are lost.  Because I am experiencing a personal and life-altering relationship with Him, I know this is the key to changing our world.  God can transform lives, but people will not know unless they hear and they cannot hear without a preacher.  For this reason I believe we are all preachers in some capacity.  Our lives, in word and action, must be a constant testimony to those around us.  The call of Christ goes beyond making converts.  We are to develop disciples.  I am evangelical because I want to promote growth for all people within the context of a passionate relationship with the Master.  I want us to do more than go through the motions.  Yes, I am concerned with evangelism and discipleship.  I am evangelical.
I am Lutheran.  With Martin Luther I declare that by faith alone may we find our hope of eternal life.  There are no works by which we can earn our place in the Kingdom.  I believe there is a definite divide between the secular and the sacred and that, while the Church should never leave society to flounder in sin, we are set apart from it by our relationship with Christ.  Sola Scriptura must be our primary method of interpreting worldview, for by Scripture alone can we measure life with any accuracy.  I believe in the graciousness of our God and in His desire to show that grace actively at work in the lives of all people.  With Luther I also recognize that at times the wrong teachings of society or the Church may cause me to say, as he did at the Council of Worms in 1521, “…to go against conscience is neither honest nor safe.  Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.  Amen.”[i]
I am congregationalist.  I affirm that the people of God make up the Body.  The Church, with all of its leaders, is nothing without the sheep of the flock.  The congregation is the assembling of the followers of the one, true God and I believe in the authority and power of this assembly. Many laypeople are blessed with gifts that must be utilized within the context of the body.  It is dangerous to ignore gifts of ministry within the congregation so the clergyman can perform all duties of the church.  The government and life of the Church depend heavily upon each member of the congregation.
I am presbyterian.  I accept that within the body of Christ there are those set aside for leadership beyond that of other believers.  This is the presbytery.  While a pastor tends the flock in many ways, a group of elder spiritual leaders is necessary to provide well-rounded direction for the local church.  No one person will have all of the insights necessary for overseeing a group of believers.  Therefore the board, the council, or the elders must give their spiritual discernment for charting the course of the church.  Those within the congregation should respect such authority; not as some political position to be gained or lost by a congregational vote, but as a divinely appointed position of leadership within the church.  I am presbyterian.
I am episcopalian, for while I know the value of leadership within the congregation, I also know the necessity of it from without the local church walls.  I believe in the validity of an episcopalian church government, at least in part.  God has not left the direction of the Church to the whims and desires of each parish.  Instead, He has placed an authority structure that includes levels of qualified leaders for the Church at large, much the same as we see in Scripture as St. Paul interacts with Timothy and Titus and their churches.  There is no infallible leadership, but there is clear direction given to the churches through those in high places of authority as determined by our Lord.  For this reason pastors, elders, bishops, superintendents, cardinals, and general councils are vital to the local church.  We are not a dictatorship of church authority, but neither are we a democracy.  I am episcopalian because I want to submit myself to every appropriate authority structure put in place by our Father.
I am baptist.  The outward sign of God’s grace at work in a person who has been converted is shown through the washing of the body in water.  Death of the old man is transformed into the life of the new one.  Living in obedience to the Word of God, believers should be baptized as a symbol of their commitment, relationship, and conversion.  I believe in the symbolic and sacramental aspects of baptism as it was instituted by our Lord with His cousin John.  I am baptist. 
I am methodist.  I believe there is a discipline and structure necessary to our relationship with Christ.  There can be little hope for the believer who wishes to live his Christianity without purpose or determination.  I believe in the filling of the Holy Spirit as the Enabler in this devoted life.  There is a method to how we must live and so I am methodist.  Scripture, prayer, good works, the means of grace, and spiritual accountability are all necessary parts of a faith lived out. I am methodist because I believe in the interdependency of believers in our journey through life.  I am methodist because I know it is our responsibility to care for those in need and to transform the world in which we live through unconditional love for God and man.  There is no hopeless person or situation when true principles of methodical Christian living are applied.  I am methodist.
I am Wesleyan, for I claim the heritage of John and Charles as my own.  I know God does not only desire to see people converted, but to be purified.  Therefore I believe two works of grace are possible in this life: conversion and sanctification.  I believe in perfect love and Christian perfection.  I believe true Christianity is bound in the two greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  On these hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).  I believe in corporate and individual works of grace.  I believe it is possible to lose one’s salvation, but the committed believer need not worry over his security as long as he walks in daily communion with the Lord and quickly responds to any promptings of the Spirit.  I believe God’s grace is at work in each person, Christian or not, and the more we recognize our need for it, the more grace we receive.  I believe in using reason, logic, and experience to form theology based upon the teachings of Scripture.  I am Wesleyan. 
I am a proponent of holiness.  I do not merely adhere to a theological structure that espouses two works of grace, but I believe in separation from the mindset of the world and separation to the will of God.  I believe purity of heart and life is possible and should be sought.  I believe holiness is not a theology of a few denominations, but must be the pursuit of all believers.  I take seriously the call to be holy because God is holy.  We are to be like the One who made us, called us into relationship with Himself, died for us, and provides His Spirit for our conversion and purification.  I believe in holiness.    
I am pentecostal.  I believe in the filling of the Holy Spirit as it came on the Day of Pentecost.  Believers ought not be content with a conversion experience, but should expect more from the God who loves them.  He promised us the presence of the Comforter and Guide.  He showed us His power on the day of Pentecost.  When the Spirit comes we are empowered for ministry and evangelism and given gifts beyond our own capabilities.  The New Testament outlines how the Spirit works within followers of Christ to enable them to do the work of the Body.  The Church is built and encouraged, developed and expanded when the Spirit uses people within it to preach, teach, evangelize, give, help, and use many other spiritual gifts.  I believe the Spirit has the ability to meet us in ways we do not expect with results we may find surprising.  I am pentecostal.
I am charismatic.  I believe the gifts of God’s grace are active in the Church through the power of His Spirit.  I desire to be full of charisma, or the inspirational qualities that come from having the Spirit within.  I do not believe worship and a personal relationship with Christ will always follow an established plan.  While the Scriptural call is for all things to be done decently and in order, I expect a passionate love for Jesus will at times call believers to act out of the ordinary and to behave in ways that perhaps seem strange.  My worship to the Lord may at times overpower me as I consider the holiness of God.  The Spirit may so fill my heart that I cannot help but express it aloud to others.  For these reasons, I am charismatic.
I am independent.  I am not bound by any denomination or belief structure and yet I am bound by them all.  Anything shown to me through Scripture and my relationship with Christ becomes part of my creed, whether it is supported by a formal group or not.  For this reason I must stand outside a denomination when I believe it has strayed from Scripture and yet be willing to claim it for all points on which we agree.  To be independent is not to be free from authority but to think beyond the scope of what the authority says.  No person is infallible; no denomination is perfect.  I pledge my allegiance first to Christ and then to the Church.  While doing so, I still affirm that to be outside of the Church body is to be slipping away from Christ Himself.
I am a fundamentalist.  I believe some aspects of theology are the irreducible minimum.  I accept the fundamentals of faith as proposed in the creeds and experienced by generations of Christians.  To stand for everything is to stand for nothing, and so I believe there are lines drawn in the sands of culture that must not be crossed.  I believe in strong moral and ethical guidelines.  I believe in the trinity, faith, salvation, scripture, and eternal life.  I believe heaven and hell are real, that the world was created as the Bible says, and that it will end the way the Bible foretells.  I am a fundamentalist.
I am a progressive.  I am not bound only by what the Church has believed for centuries, but by what God is doing and wants to be doing in the Church now and in the future.  I cannot afford to hold only to those concepts I have known to be true, for the Lord is always illuminating new areas I have not yet examined.  For this reason some practices I thought foundational have been revealed to be only tradition.  Likewise, some methods being attempted in the Church today will likely not last beyond the present decade.  I cannot adhere to certain practices because they are old or because they are new, but only because they align themselves with the principles of Scripture.  I am open to new ideas and want to always be moving forward, not with the latest gadgets and ideas, but in exploring appropriate ways to be the Church we have been called to be.  I want ever to be progressing in my relationship with God and so I am a progressive.
I am an American Christian and a proud citizen of the United States of America.  I have been placed in the greatest country on earth and given countless opportunities to use the resources around me to further the work of Christ.  I pledge allegiance to my country and to the values on which it was founded.  While I shudder at many of the ills plaguing our nation, I am bound to it by birth and by identity.  I recognize many of my brothers and sisters around the world will never know the kind of life I have the joy of living.  I am an American, yet I cannot be defined by my country.  Primarily I am an alien and stranger in this land.  I am no more at home here than I would be in Africa.  My ultimate allegiance is to a country and King not of this world.  For this reason I stand outside the confines of my national identity at times and judge whether or not our nation honors God and if the Church in the United States is really being the Church.  I do not despise my patriotic status, for I am blessed to be an American.  However, I do not always take pride in my country because we – yes, all of us – have allowed the ease of life to make us lazy Christians.  I do not think because I live in the greatest land that I am always right or always know best.  I believe we have much to learn from those who suffer daily for their Lord.
By today’s standards I am a conservative.  I desire to conserve that which is good, wholesome, and pure.  I believe in moral responsibility, the sanctity of marriage, the right to life, and that our culture poses many evils to us.  I believe the family is the basis of society and that a man and a woman should remain married for life.  I abhor the evils of drugs, alcohol, violence, and abuse.  I disdain the immoral, promiscuous, and flesh crazed world in which we live.  What is more, I fear many of these wrongs we would attribute to those outside the Church have crept into our own houses and into the Church itself.  I am a conservative Christian because I think many basic values and principles have been long left by the wayside in the pursuit of comfort and pride.  Without a return to such conservative ideals, I fear there is little hope for our country or the portions of the Church that have slipped into lukewarm apathy.  We need to once again claim the truths of Scripture and live by its moral, financial, and cultural principles.
By another viewpoint, I might be considered a liberal.  I desire to liberate the oppressed and free the captive by caring for those less fortunate than myself, regardless of the circumstances they have experienced or the cost to my own wallet.  I believe in providing care to the sick and social support structures to the needy because it helps to liberate people from oppressiveness.  I know Christ would have the Church be the social service organization of the world.  I am certain one of the primary reasons the government has taken on these responsibilities is because the Church failed to.  I am concerned over the greed and selfishness that seem to have permeated corporate America.  I believe in spending freely and liberally to help others, provided the money is there to begin with and good judgment is used.  I think we should accept all people as they are, realizing God does not desire to leave any of us where He finds us.  To accept someone as he is does not mean to agree with what he believes, but to understand his problems and to believe God is capable of changing the worst of sinners into the purest of saints.  I believe Christ is the greatest liberal in its purest sense because He liberates all those who call on Him for freedom from the chains of sin.  I do not think a person should be judged by stereotypes.  I can believe all of this and not live in contradiction because I am a Christian first, not a conservative or liberal.
I am political.  I believe the responsibility of the Christian is to be active in the society in which he is placed.  For me, this must mean political involvement, but I cannot be defined by a political party.  In some ways I may seem Republican, in others Democratic, and in others independent of any major affiliation.  I agree with a strong moral code within the political realm, even if few politicians seem willing to abide by one.  I am called to be involved in politics as a Christian, because that is who I am.  I believe in some aspects of capitalism and some of socialism because I believe there are principles of each found in Scripture.  I believe that, taken to an extreme, any political or financial structure will show itself to be unbiblical, but that the truth often lies somewhere in the middle of many different systems.  I am not sure about the death penalty or wars started in the name of democracy and truth, but I am willing to wrestle with these ideas.  I desire to choose leaders to represent what seems to be the most accurate depiction of the truth of God’s word.  I am a political Christian.   
In some ways I am a moderate Christian.  While there are many issues I believe need to be radically changed in our culture, I am content to begin by taking small steps towards the truth.  Christ is always patient when working in my life, and I believe the Church must show the same attitude towards society.  We have often formed our political agendas around extreme hot topic issues while ignoring concerns that would take more care and precision in solving.  I am content in the middle of the road at times because I see my Master reaching out to both sides of a culture divided harshly in the middle.  While doing so I continue to proclaim there is only one way, one God, and one truth and to ignore it is certain eternal damnation.
Because I see so much of myself in many viewpoints and because I am loyal only to Christ and no organization in particular, I may take stances others feel are contradictory.  For example, I may support Christian schooling in contexts where it is the only form of good education and yet condemn Christian schools that have become exclusive private clubs to keep children from interacting with the very world they are called to influence.  I may abhor alcoholism and yet spend time befriending people who are drinking.  I can do so because my Lord seemed more interested in life-changing transformation than with only the immediate representation of a particular problem.  I may support the sanctity of life or marriage and yet disapprove of the tactics employed to promote these issues.  My faithfulness to Christ may make me what seems to be a walking contradiction, but that is what the Pharisees thought of Him and so I accept the title willingly. 
I am a Christian. I am a leader and a follower, a director and a servant, a teacher and student.  I am judgmental and yet tolerant, and I believe in many things that seem idealistic. I am an enigma because I support ideas that are Christian only in part and defy others that claim to be Christian to the core.  I am difficult to describe because many adjectives are tied to presuppositions and stereotypes.  I want all who do not know Christ to think He might resemble what they see in me, and I want every believer to know I reflect the image of our Lord. 
I am a Christian.  I can identify with all the major sectors of our faith and yet I can find fault with each of them, as well.  Because I stand for Jesus I cannot be claimed by any one group.  You see, to be Christian is to be like Jesus.  My allegiance is to Him, my desire is for Him, and my life is of Him.  I proudly call all that is Christian my own and willingly discard that which does not mirror His image.  I may be frowned on by many, misunderstood by the majority, and claimed by but a few.  But then, my Savior was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).  And so for all that I am, I feel no need to be accepted by anyone but Him.
Do not think that because I would call many sectors of Christendom part of my heritage that I stand for nothing.  In fact, it is because of what I stand for I find my roots go so deep.  I am on my way to eternity with Jesus in the company of all the faithful followers of His name; I trust I will not know who all that may be until we have completed the journey together.  I am rigid and flexible.  I am harsh and yet forgiving.  I seem a contradiction, because that is what people thought of my Jesus.
I am a Christian.  My trust is in God, my actions are under His judgment, and my person is His property.  I am always compelled to examine what it means to be Christian today.  For this reason I cannot be forced to live within one set structure.  My faith is not a religion only but a personal relationship with God.  What I am is who He is; what He is not, I cannot be.
To be Christian is to see myself in comparison to Christ.  This shows me I have much to learn and far to grow even while I am walking in perfect love.  I am content to be where I am spiritually, but not willing to stay here long.  Jesus beckons me onward, to follow and sacrifice my very self.
When I have left this world, I suppose it is unlikely any of the descriptors I have listed above will be placed on my tombstone.  Perhaps it will read with my name and “Husband” or “Father”.  However, it is not the labels of this world with which I am concerned with.  Let my life bear record that when I have gone on to be with my Lord, the One I love more than anything, those left behind will say: “He was a Christian.  Perhaps not one easily defined or understood, but when we saw him we knew we saw a likeness of Christ.”   Yes, I am a Christian, nothing more or less.  I pray my life is a witness of all that He is and that others see it clearly in me.  May I be called Christian rather than anything else.  It is what I am.  I am a Christian, and that is enough for me.

[i] Shelley, Bruce Church History in Plain Language (Nashville, Tenessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 242.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

God Is Still In My (Public) School

The school year resumes here in Michigan this coming week.  And among all the groans of readjusting bedtimes, early rising, and (gasp) homework...the barely contained and slightly muffled exclamations of parental glee can be heard from the front porches of house after house as the bus door closes and the diesel engine whisks the little darlings away for the next 7 hours.

And as those students of all ages crash through the front doors into the halls of learning, with enough commotion at times to convince us that a band of Viking warriors has descended and stormed the building like some ancient fortress, I am pleased to see that God is making His return to the places of public education this fall.

Now here you may be tempted to leave this posting and quickly jump over to your Fox News or CNN or MSNBC or Twitter account or wherever you get your daily dose of real world happenings to see if perchance you have missed the notification that some new law has been passed or court ruling handed down regarding religious practices in state sponsored institutions of learning.  And, depending on your personal convictions, this thought may give you great joy or cause for some concern.  But slow down for a minute, hold off on your Google search, and just follow my thinking for a few sentences more.

No, there is not a news item you have missed.  What you may have not realized, however, is that while the evangelical Christian community has often bemoaned the fact that God has been "kicked out of our schools", He never really went anywhere at all.

"Oh sure" you are thinking..."of course He is still TECHNICALLY there.  He is everywhere, so no one could really kick Him out of the school."

While I give you high marks on the theological interpretation of "omnipresence" that has very little to do with my point here.

Those who are afraid we've removed God from education remind me of those who say the Church is a building where people gather to worship.  As if the buildings we build and the purposes we say they serve or do not serve are what make all the difference in where we find God or His people.  It simply isn't the case.

I tell you God is making His return to all the places of learning this fall because of the many students, teachers, and administrators who carry Him with them as they once again fill those halls, classrooms, and offices for day after day and week after week.
The Bible insists Jesus Christ is the flesh of God Almighty (I John 1:14) and the Church-that is those who posses a relationship with Christ-are His body here on earth (I Corinthians 12:27).  
If this be true, and it is, then Jesus walks through the doors of our schools every time a person who possesses Him does so.

Jesus enters public schools whenever students or staff members who possess Him do so.  This is incarnation.
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In our local school districts I have the pleasure of knowing several teachers, staff, administrators, and students who take their relationship with Christ to school with them every day.

I've prayed with them, counseled them, and watched them live out their relationship with Him in the context of their daily interactions with others. I've seen them exude the essence of grace and love to those they interact with. I've listened as they've wrestled with how to best shine as lights in sometimes dark and complicated situations.

Our area pastors can be seen routinely in the lives of our local school districts. We are coaches, Bible study leaders, school board members, committee participants, and many other roles people may not even recognize.

These believers are not covert agents sent from the home base of the church to spy on or steal away combative personnel.  This is not a war against public schools.  We aren't sending our troops to do battle in enemy territory.  Instead, the Bible instructs us that we are always to be in the world, just not of it.  So staff and students alike who go forth day after day in a school environment not necessarily in line with Biblical principles are simply doing what Jesus sent the original disciples to do: go shine as lights in a dark world. 

This is not to say that students or staff who are involved in educational institutions specifically dedicated to a Christian worldview are not doing their part, as well.  In fact, they too are finding ways to engage and interact with those Jesus loves.  The environment simply has a different feel.  But I suppose it is safe to say (having participated in both types of education) that the percentages are higher in public school of people who know little about our Savior.

The point is...we are all called to be Christ wherever we are. And, as long as there are those who rightly name the name of Christ in the local halls of learning, Jesus Himself is there.

He may not be prayed to by the masses at the start of the school day.  Copies of His word may not necessarily be found in every classroom or library.  There may be many who choose to ignore Him altogether. But, make no mistake about it, He is there.

He is there in the student who chooses to speak kindly to those so many others marginalize and ignore.  He is there in the teacher whose compassionate love for even the most difficult of pupils is motivated by her knowledge of the great love God has bestowed on her. He is there in the administrator whose character and trustworthiness is a direct result of daily communion with Christ. He is there in the pastor who simply shows up for lunch or mentoring time and invests in the lives of struggling students. He is there in the life of a young girl who chooses to share her faith with her classmates and encourage them to get to know Him better. He is there in the staff member who works day in and out with the heart of a servant modeled after the greatest Servant of all.

And yes, little by little, the light shines in the darkness. Sometimes the darkness does not understand it, but the light shines on. And when those walking in darkness come to see that great light and begin to wonder at it...they, too, may desire that the light begin to shine in them. And thus the darkness is dispelled all the more.

This is incarnation.  The fleshliness of God first brought to this earth in Christ himself and now lived out continually through His body. the doors to the school year swing open this fall, take heart...Jesus is there. He never left. -- TWEET THIS