Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Necessary Relevance and Irrelevance of the Church

The Necessary Relevance and Irrelevance of the church:

I am reading Bryan Stone’s book, “Evangelism After Christendom” which offers an approach to evangelism after the Modernity. Part of this means a rejection of the church’s desire to be relevant to its culture. Instead, part of the church’s faithful witness to culture is by being different. Yet this goes against the practice of most churches which desire to engage their culture in meaningful ways. I think there is room for agreement in both of these positions when we are clear what we mean by “church.” I think there are two ways one can faithfully use the word church:

1. Church as a politico-economic faith community; and
2. Church as a local organization dedicated to the systemic and organized proclamation and worship of Jesus.

If these are both faithful uses of the word church, then the church (#1) must be irrelevant to its culture. To use an example close to my heart, the church (#1) cannot simply be an organization that teaches better money management than other not-for-profits that do that sort of thing. In this sense, it has to be irrelevant to a culture consumed with economics. However, the church (#2) must be relevant in proclaiming and practicing Christian faith in its culture, which means teaching financial management to people swamped with debt. This teaching is incredibly relevant, but irrelevant in its content because it should help to create that new faith community where money is not status. (The necessary point to the church (#2) is that it doesn’t teach financial management for reasons of self-perpetuation. That goes against the church (#1) being irrelevant.) The Good News of the church (#1) is not financial management, but the Good News of the church (#2) can come through financial management.

Another example one could use is sexuality. The church (#1) must be irrelevant to its culture in that it asks completely different questions about sexuality than its culture, but the church (#2) must be completely relevant by understanding sexuality is a prominent issue facing its culture. The Good News of the church (#1) is not its promise of sexual fulfillment within its teaching, but the Good News of the church (#2) can come through its relevant teaching on sexuality.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Was the Holy Spirit present in the Old Testament?

Out of yesterday's sermon, I received two questions for further thought. The first was regarding the Holy Spirit's presence in the Old Testament.

The fast answer is that the presence of the Spirit in the New Testament is to be the norm because of the ascension of Jesus. Jesus has received the Spirit from the Father and has poured the Spirit out on his people (Acts 2:33). Perhaps we could say that as the Spirit was present in unique ways in the Old Testament so is the Spirit's unique presence now to be expected because of the triumph of Jesus.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire (SDM) tells the life (and love) story of an Indian teen through his appearance on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The questions he faces all provide a window into short and long vignettes about his life.

The best part of SDM is that it is not void of hope. Great story doesn't just leave you bummed out. It paints a sobering picture of India and its amazing discrepancy between the rich and poor, the powerful and the weak. One interesting aspect of the story is the transformation of the police officers who interrogate the main character. They start out as thugs and eventually one of them becomes more humane.

I liked it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What does God being in the change feel like?

The second insightful question I had after the service on Sunday was from my wife, Heather. She asked, "What does it feel like to have God in the change?" I thought this question very insightful because at times I think we over-interpret our emotional responses. For example, when we feel anxiety through times of serious illness, is that what God's presence feels like? Most would guess no, and so may interpret that anxiety as evidence of God's absence. I don't feel God because I feel anxiety. Now, it may or may not be true that anxiety shows God's absence (I'm inclined to think No), but it's still an open question.

Any thoughts on what God being in the changing world would feel like for individuals? Is it peace? Hope? Optimism? Joy?

Monday, March 23, 2009

How do Christians look different?

I had two excellent questions posed to me yesterday after the sermon and our opportunity to talk it out. First was from Kellie Tompkins and the second was from Heather. I'll share on Kellie's today and Heather's Thursday. Kellie asked, What can Christians do to set themselves aside, to make themselves look different? The last stanza of the poem, "Mad Farmer's Liberation Front" by Wendell Berry provides some beginning reflections.
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
First, a story. In the early 2000s there was a lot of terrorism associated with the #18 bus route in Jerusalem. Suicide bombers and other horrors. Some Christians, a significant minority in the area, decided to hold a prayer vigil. Not your average vigil, though. A vigil on the #18 bus route. They prayed for peace in the place of fear. Did it end terrorism? Of course not. Did it set them aside as strange? Sure.
The challenge of Christians is to live out of the hope for a renewed world because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The wisdom of Daniel was that he did it in the simplest of things: What he would eat. Was what you ate serious to Daniel? Of course. But it was simple and daily and formative--it shaped who he was. What Christians do on a daily basis is what will set them aside and generate the impetus to be set aside--daily things like what we eat, where we shop, whether we exercise, how we parent, where we live, what we drive.... Daniel could have gone unnoticed in his eating regimen for many people in the kingdom. I think many Christians, in their desire and activity to be set aside, may go unnoticed, as well.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Jesus and Joshua

Sometimes revelation catches us by surprise. I have been reading through the Old Testament for a few months and I am now in Joshua. One story struck me. It's the story of Joshua and his brilliant military strategy in conquering the city of Ai (Joshua 8). Joshua is about to attack the city and separates off 5,000 men while the remaining 25,000 make like they are going to attack the city. The King of Ai, obviously a very brave man, and his fighting men (less than 12,000!) empty out of the city to engage these 25,000 men, unaware of the 5,000 laying in ambush. Joshua allows this smaller army from Ai to begin defeating this larger group of Israelites, pushing them further and further from the city, until he gives a signal for the remaining 5,000 to rush into the city, setting it ablaze and killing women and children. The men of Ai are now trapped--devastated by the loss of their city and hopelessly outnumbered. The account ends with the king of Ai, likely already dead, hung on a tree outside the city, and then buried under a pile of rocks, two symbolic reminders of the destruction and shaming of this city.

It's a brutal account. Death all around. Women and children killed under the leadership of Israel. It's all very easy to read this as 21st century people and condemn its horror without thinking of its historal context. Of course it's brutal; of course it's horrific--it's 4000 years ago! But doesn't it leave us with questions about God? God has instructed them to take away plunder, but not to spare people (8:29). Why would God do this?

I don't think there are many answers to these questions. At least, not answers that shape the whole thing up and make it more palatable. But what struck me in this was the contrast of Jesus. While Joshua hangs the shamed king from a tree, Jesus gives himself to be killed. While Joshua buries the King of Ai under rocks, Jesus is entombed behind a stone. Ironic that Jesus' life would not identify with his namesake--Joshua (Jesus = Yeshua in Aramaic, a sister language to Hebrew that Jewish people spoke under the reign of the Greeks)--but with the King of Ai. Sometimes you just have to let the story play out and be surprised by the ending.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

James the Mediator

We have been exploring James for a few weeks and something jumped out at me in my latest reading. I believe James is writing to Jewish Christians spread throughout the Roman empire. Some of them have land and status; some do not. James is writing to bridge the gap between them, writing to them about the possibilities of growth for the poor if things don't change, but also the necessity that they do.

One of the warnings James gives is in chapter 4. He begins the chapter with cautions about what actually starts all of the quarrelings among them: battles that rage within them. They covet; they desire. He then warns: Your friendship with the world is hatred toward God (v. 4). What they use to achieve status with the world despises God. Rather than achieving status with the world, they are to submit themselves to God. They are to wash their hands! They are are to purify their hearts! (v.8) Notice how James takes purity laws (wash your hands) and applies it in terms of how lives are lived in the context of the great promise of the prophets of a new covenant written on the hearts of people. James is appealing to the law and history of this group of people to establish a new context for their relations. He is mediating.

Then he finishes his warnings with advice: Do not slander one another. He is referring to them all, here, rich and poor alike. Poor, don't speak against the rich. Rich, don't speak against the poor. Why? Because when you speak you judge one another. And when you judge one another, you judge the law. And when you judge the law, you are setting yourself above it. Notice how James has now used the law--the great unifier of the Jewish people in dispersion--and shown how their disunity is a judgment on it.

James creates a new world for his hearers to live in, one that is shaped by their Scripture for them to live out the life of the church.