Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An Alternative Society

“Let me write the songs of a nation; I don’t care who writes its laws.”
–Andrew Fletcher, Scottish politician

The debate continues. I really thought after the vote to reform healthcare by our government officials this past week, some of the healthy debate, nasty banter, and all around discussion would subside – at least a little bit. Man, was I wrong (and I hate it when I'm wrong). In fact, it seems as though all the emotions, attacks, and defenses have intensified. I tried, believe me I tried, all week to write without bringing attention to the events of this past week – but the Lord just wouldn’t allow it. I sat down on three different days to write this jot, but it was a subject the Lord continued to surface in my mind. So, given the recent uproar in Washington, I thought it might be helpful to jot this week, not about healthcare reform, but about our role and responsibility as Christians, the church, in responding to politics and spurring cultural change.

I've said this before - Christ did not die on the cross so you would be either a Republican or a Democrat. It just doesn’t matter to Him. Wherever you might land politically, it’s helpful for all Christians to remember that the Kingdom of God is not flying in on Air Force One. Unfortunately, when it comes to engaging culture, many Christians think exclusively of political activism. I fully agree that Christians need to be involved in the political process – but our priority, as Christians, is to bring the standards of God’s Word to bear on every dimension of our culture.

That said, politics are not the only thing (and definitely not the main thing) God had in mind when He commanded cultural transformation (Matthew 28.19-20). A temporary victory in the voting booth does not reverse a downward moral trend driven by cultural gatekeepers in news media, entertainment, art, and education. Politics is not a cure-all. In fact, with every passing day, I grow more convinced that what happens in New York (finance), Hollywood (entertainment), Silicon Valley (technology), and Miami (fashion) has a far greater impact on how our culture thinks about reality than what happens in Washington, DC (politics).

Yet, we seem to get more upset about things said and decisions being made in Washington than we do in the aforementioned cultural pillars of our society. Why? Is it because we care more about how our personal lives are affected than we do our culture? Let me say this – God has established His church as an alternative society, not to compete with or copy this world, but to offer a refreshing alternative to it. These are our moments to shine. These are the times the Lord has given us, in the dead of night, in the middle of a Katrina, to shine as lighthouses for His glorious redemption and hope to fall on our culture, therefore:

• We are to have joy while others wallow in their negativity
• We are to act out in kindness when others lash out in anger
• We are to have self-control when people are harsh and nasty
• We can comfort because we are at peace when people are overcome with worry and fear
• We need to exhibit patience when so many people are running and jumping around like "chickens with their heads cut off"
• We are to be confident (in Christ) when others are beside themselves
• We should be servants when everyone else is demanding service
• We have to show love in the midst of a culture that reserves love

We should get on our knees, raise our hands to the sky, and thank God for these opportunities to proclaim His majestic Name and live out His glorious truths. Yet, so many times we react to crisis, injustice, evil, etc., no differently than anyone else and instead of offering an alternative society, we inadvertently communicate to our culture that we have nothing unique to offer – nothing deeply spiritual or profoundly transforming.

Our story (of God's redemption) is the only one that brings meaning, purpose, and hope from above – something completely alternative to our world. Let's accept what the Lord ordains for our lives and make His Kingdom our priority.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

It Wasn't The Luck of The Irish

I am a servant of Christ to a foreign nation for the unspeakable glory of life everlasting,
which is in Jesus Christ our Lord
– Patrick

Whether you are Irish, Roman Catholic, both, or neither it's hard to escape the week without recognizing Saint Patrick's Day. I am only part Irish, and not at all Roman Catholic, so I know virtually nothing about Saint Patrick other than the green beer, parades, shamrocks, leprechauns, and drunken Red Sox fans that celebrate in his honor every March 17th. Technically, Saint Patrick was not even a saint, as he was never canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Additionally, Patrick was not even Irish. Rather, he was a Roman-Britain who spoke Latin and a bit of Welsh.

Patrick was born around 390 A.D. He was a rebellious non-Christian teenager who had come from a Christian family – his grandfather was a pastor and His dad was a deacon. When he was roughly 16 years of age he was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland on a ship where he was sold into slavery. He spent the next six years alone in the wilderness as a shepherd for his masters’ cattle and sheep. However, during his extended periods of isolation without any human contact, Patrick began praying and was eventually born again into a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ.

In his early twenties God spoke to Patrick in a dream, telling him to flee from his master for a ship that was waiting for him. Amazingly, Patrick made the 200-mile journey on foot without being caught or harmed to find a ship setting sail for his home, just as God had promised. Upon returning home, Patrick enrolled in seminary and was eventually commissioned as a pastor. Some years later God spoke to Patrick in a dream, commanding him to return to Ireland to preach the gospel and plant churches for the pagans who lived there.

The Roman Catholic Church had given up on converting such “barbarians” deemed beyond hope. The Celtic peoples, of which the Irish were a part, were an illiterate bunch of drunken, fighting, perverted pagans who basically worshiped anything. They were a violent and lawless people, numbering anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000. They had no city centers or national government and were spread out among some 150 warring clans. Their enemies were terrified of them because they were known to show up for battles and partake in wild orgies (as well as other extreme levels of debasement) before running into battle naked and drunk while screaming as if they were demon-possessed.

In faith, the forty-something year-old Patrick sold all of his possessions, including the land he had inherited from his father, to fund his missionary journey to Ireland. He worked as an itinerant preacher and paid large sums of money to various tribal chiefs to ensure he could travel safely through their lands and preach the gospel. His strategy was completely unique, and he functioned like a missionary trying to relate to the Irish people and communicate the gospel in their culture by using such things as three-leaf clovers to explain the gospel. Upon entering a pagan clan, Patrick would seek to first convert the tribal leaders and other people of influence. He would then pray for the sick, cast demons out of the possessed, preach the Bible, and use both musical and visual arts to compel people to put their faith in Jesus. If enough converts were present he would build a simple church building that did not resemble ornate Roman architecture, baptize the converts, and hand over the church to a convert he had trained to be the pastor so that he could move on to repeat the process with another clan.

Patrick gave his life, until he died at the age of 77, to the people who had enslaved him. He had seen untold thousands of people convert as between 30-40 of the 150 tribes had become substantially Christian. He had trained 1000 pastors, planted 700 churches, and was the first noted person in history to take a strong public stand against slavery.

Curiously, Patrick’s unorthodox ministry methods, which had brought so much fruit among the Irish, also brought much opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. Because Patrick was so far removed from Roman civilization and church polity, he was seen by some as an instigator of unwelcome changes. This led to great conflicts between the Roman and Celtic Christians. The Celtic Christians had their own calendar and celebrated Easter a week earlier than their Roman counterparts. Additionally, the Roman monks shaved only the hair on the top of their head, whereas the Celtic monks shaved all of their hair except their long locks which began around the bottom of their head as a funky monk mullet. The Romans considered these and other variations by the Celtic Christian leaders to be acts of insubordination.

In the end, the Roman Church should have learned from Patrick, who is one of the greatest missionaries who has ever lived. Though Patrick’s pastors and churches looked different in method, they were very orthodox in their theology and radically committed to such things as Scripture and the Trinity. Additionally, they were some of the most gifted Christian artists the world has ever known, and their prayers and songs endure to this day around the world, including the Celtic hymn "Be Thou My Vision."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Can You Hear Me Now?

As your Teaching Pastor, one of the great desires of my heart and goals of my ministry is to expose you to many different men and women who effectively communicate the truths of God that need to touch our hearts and be embraced at the heart-level. One such man is Tullian Tchividjian (cha-vih-jin). Tullian is the Senior Pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. The article below is taken from chapter eight of his book, Unfashionable. Below, Tullian communicates the meaning, purpose, and importance of communicating the gospel to our world in ways people can understand, without compromising the message of the gospel. I found this article to be very well written and especially interesting in light of our recent study of 1 Corinthians 14. It is right in line with Paul's constant (and consistent) challenge to Be Clear. Enjoy, be enlightened, and be challenged…

“The principle behind Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 9:22 to “become all things to all men” is what Christian thinkers call “contextualization.” Contextualization is the idea that we need to be translating gospel truth into language understood by our culture. Cross-cultural missionaries and Bible translators have been doing this for centuries. They take the unchanging truth of the Gospel and put it into language that fits the context they are trying to reach. Contextualization simply means translating the Gospel—in both word and deed—into understandable terms appropriate to the audience. It’s Gospel translation that is context sensitive.

Genna, my eight-year-old daughter, loves going to her Sunday school class for various reasons. She loves seeing her friends and singing her favorite songs. But she also loves to learn from her capable and creative teacher. He works hard to use language, concepts, and illustrations that she and the other children in the class will understand as he faithfully teaches them the Bible. And as a result, Genna gets it. She walks away Sunday after Sunday excited about what she’s learned. This thrills Kim and me. We’re both grateful that her teacher understands the need to contextualize.

Similarly, every English Bible translation is an effort to contextualize the Scriptures (originally written in Hebrew and Greek for ancient peoples) for an English-speaking audience of today.

Contextualization also involves building relationships with people who don’t believe. We don’t expect them to come to us; we go to them. We meet them where they are. We enter into their world by seeking to identify with their struggles, their likes, their dislikes, their ideas. Chuck Colson speaks of it as entering into people’s “stories”:

We must enter into the stories of the surrounding culture, which takes real listening. We connect with the literature, music, theater, arts, and issues that express the existing culture’s hopes, dreams, and fears. This builds a bridge by which we can show how the Gospel can enter and transform those stories.

Edith Schaeffer, wife of the late Francis Schaeffer, wrote about a visit the two of them made to San Francisco in 1968. One night they went to Fillmore West to hang out with the druggies and hippies and take in a light show. She records how heartbroken they were as they witnessed on that night “the lostness of humanity in search of peace where there is no peace.” She concluded, “A time of listening is needed—listening to what the next generation is saying, listening to the words of the music they are listening to, listening to the meaning behind the words. If true communication is to continue, there is a language to be learned.”

Contextualization begins with a broken heart for the lost and a driving desire to help them understand God’s liberating truth. Only by real listening and learning can we hope to persuasively communicate God’s unchanging Word to our constantly changing world.

Sadly, some well-meaning Christians conclude otherwise. For these Christians, contextualization means the same thing as compromise. They believe it means giving people what they want and telling people what they want to hear. What they misunderstand, however, is that contextualization means giving people God’s answers (which they may not want) to the questions they’re really asking and in ways they can understand.

This misunderstanding of contextualization has led these people to argue that cultural reflection and contextualization are at best distractions, at worst sinful. They admonish us to abandon these things and focus simply on the Bible. While this sounds virtuous, it ends up being foolish for two reasons. First, as we’ve already seen, the Bible itself exhorts us to understand our times so that we can reach our changing world with God’s eternal truth. To not contextualize, therefore, is a sin. And second, we all live inescapably within a particular cultural framework that shapes the way we think about everything. So if we don’t work hard to understand our context, we’ll not only fail in our task to effectively communicate the gospel but we’ll also find it impossible to avoid being negatively shaped by a world we don’t understand.

In a recent interview, pastor Tim Keller put it this way: “to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there’s no avoiding it.”
Whether translating the Bible or developing relationships with non-Christians, we’re to be missionary minded in everything we do. That takes work—the hard effort of maintaining the big picture and communicating comprehensibly and compellingly to those who don’t share our convictions and worldview. Therefore, every day and in every circumstance, we need to be consciously and rigorously translating our faith into the language of the culture we’re trying to reach.

This is the challenge: If you don’t contextualize enough, no one’s life will be transformed because they won’t understand you. But if you contextualize too much, no one’s life will be transformed because you won’t be challenging their deepest assumptions and calling them to change.

Becoming “all things to all people”, therefore, does not mean fitting in with the fallen patterns of this world so that there is no distinguishable difference between Christians and non-Christians. While rightly living “in the world,” we must avoid the extreme of accommodation—being “of the world.” It happens when Christians, in their attempt to make proper contact with the world, go out of their way to adopt worldly styles, standards, and strategies.

When Christians try to eliminate the counter-cultural, unfashionable features of the biblical message because those features are unpopular in the wider culture—for example, when we reduce sin to a lack of self-esteem, deny the exclusivity of Christ, or downplay the reality of knowable absolute truth—we’ve moved from contextualization to compromise. When we accommodate our culture by jettisoning key themes of the gospel, such as suffering, humility, persecution, service, and self-sacrifice, we actually do our world more harm than good. For love’s sake, compromise is to be avoided at all costs.

As the Bible teaches, the Lordship of Christ has a sense of totality: Christ’s truth covers everything, not just “spiritual” or “religious” things. But it also has a sense of tension. As Lord, Jesus not only calls us to himself, he also calls us to break with everything which conflicts with his Lordship.

Contextualization without compromise is the goal!”*

*This article was posted on Tullian Tchividjian’s blog, which can be found at www.crpc.org/blog.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The "M" Word

One of the things I love most in life is watching my kids grow, learn, and develop. With each passing day it seems I learn more about them (as well as from them), have more fun with them, and relate better to them. One of the things that's so interesting to me is how much they like doing things for Mommy and Daddy. What an example it is to me because, too often, I don’t like doing things for anyone but myself. But my kids will do whatever we ask them. Cooper, can you go get Daddy's phone? Isabella, can you sit with Ruby? Brynn, can you get a couple of diapers? And without hesitation, they're off running to accomplish the task at hand. They've even fought and screamed at each other over who gets to help Mommy and Daddy. Now, please don't think me na├»ve. I know this isn't going to last but it's remarkable to me nonetheless, not that they do, but that they love to do. They get excited and do things for us with so much energy.

Recently at a pastors’ conference, John Piper shared a type of biographical sketch and spoke on the life of C.S. Lewis, and the impact Lewis has had on his life. He quoted C.S. Lewis throughout his message but one particular quote caught my attention in light of what the Lord has been showing me through my children. Lewis, in talking about the Puritans, and William Tyndale in particular, had this to say about works in light of the gospel: "In reality Tyndale is trying to express an obstinate fact which meets us long before we venture into the realm of theology; the fact that morality or duty (what he calls ‘the Law’) never yet made a man happy in himself or dear to others. It is shocking, but it is undeniable. We do not wish either to be, or to live among, people who are clean or honest or kind as a matter of duty: we want to be, and associate with, people who like being clean and honest and kind. The mere suspicion that what seemed an act of spontaneous friendliness or generosity was really done as a duty subtly poisons it. In philosophical language, the ethical category is self-destructive; morality is healthy only when it is trying to abolish itself. In theological language, no man can be saved by works. The whole purpose of the “Gospel,” for Tyndale, is to deliver us from morality. Thus, paradoxically, the “Puritan” of modern imagination—the cold, gloomy heart, doing as duty what happier and richer souls do without thinking of it—is precisely the enemy which historical Protestantism arose and smote."

Those are serious, and very appropriate, words for us. Moralism thinks in terms of doing external duties. It oppresses a person with pressures from the outside. It takes one's heart, and for that matter, Christ, completely out of any equation. Moralism is me-centered. Moralism believes God’s love for me rises and falls based on how obedient I am. And I'm afraid something happens to us when, after we cry out to Jesus as Savior and Lord, we steadily decline into a "works"-centered, a "me"-centered, religion. Sure, it starts with the gospel, we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but we talk and act as if we are sustained by the antithesis of the gospel – namely, our morals.

Paul writes – (Galatians 1.6-7) I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. The Galatians were struggling with loyalty and observance to the law over and above their love and devotion to Christ. They were still living in the leg irons of duty instead of in the freedom of God's grace, provided through Jesus Christ. They were trying to change their external actions without concerning their heart with Jesus Christ and living their lives compelled by the love, grace, and person of God. This leads Paul to say, in effect, just a few verses (v.10) later – Am I living for other people or am living for God – because it can't be both. That's what resting on your morals, instead of in the arms of Jesus Christ, does to you – it clouds your view of Christ with the muck of doing out of duty for others to see.

It has to be one or the other – moralism vs. Jesus Christ. You cannot claim both and it cannot be both, because Christianity is never, ever, ever about moralism.

So, I ask you – On whom, or what, are you depending for God's love?

*Quote from C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p.187