Tuesday, December 21, 2010

We Wrestle Not With Flesh, But Sometimes With Our Flesh

I am bugged by analogies that compare the Christian church to an army. When I hear talk of spiritual war I flinch and try to steer the conversation in a new direction. It's not that the church-as-an-army is actually a wrong idea, but too often I see this idea being used to turn Christians against their neighbors instead of against the Enemy who lies and divides (Eph 6:12). Sadly idea of a holy army always makes me think of well dressed church-folks shouting at poor people.

It's not that I don't believe that Christianity stands uniquely opposed to the habits and systems of the world. It is precisely because I believe that Christ and Christianity are so opposed to the world that military analogies bother me. The trouble with overextending these analogies, is that they turns people towards the wrong sorts of battles. My revulsion most often comes up when I hear the phrase “Defending the faith” and at the heart of that annoyance is, in actuality, a loathing for the ass I can be when I'm at my worst.

I spent my freshman year of high school engaged in what I believed to be the holiest of wars for the kingdom of God. At every opportunity, and with any excuse I could find, I wrote and spoke about God's word and my faith in Jesus Christ. That sounds fine if not excellent, but unfortunately what I was often doing was trying to set myself apart from people at the school whom I thought were evil. I was trying to show them that if they had faith they could just stop being evil and be like me. That was a pretentious mission with a rather faulty premise. A Christian who is under the impression that their faith makes them superior to others has missed the point of faith. Faith is a gift (Eph 2:8), and not the mark of some holier tier of society.

If people become Christians solely because they find that the Christian way of thinking is morally or philosophically superior to all others, they are not the sorts of people I really want to call brothers and sisters. Race, gender, religion, and every other conceivable distinction between individuals has been used since the beginning of time as an excuse for one group to call themselves superior to another. Christ's religion does not have room for that nonsense. Christ came to serve, love, and bless anyone who wanted him. Christianity even thwarts those who would earn God's favor. The Bible tells Christians that we are “the worst of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) who are justified freely by the action of God. (Eph2: 8-9)

Here's what I think about truly “Defending the faith”:

Arguing does not defend Christianity. Arguing, as I understand is a competition in which two people stroke their own egos while belittling the beliefs of others. This closes down opportunities to minister while isolating and dividing peoples. Arguments honor a winning intellect, but Christianity exalts humility (Lk 22:27). When the faith is defended, it is by Christians of humble spirit who do not conform to the petty and adversarial patterns of this world (Rom 12:2). A smart Christian defends the faith when they value loving their neighbor above proving their neighbor wrong.

I know of no one who was intellectually persuaded into faith in Jesus Christ. Bringing people into God's kingdom is rarely done in debate (though God may make use of any means he likes). People are brought into the kingdom of God by generous Love. More practically, people are brought in by Christians who politely listening to people they disagree with, who show authentic friendship, and who act with generosity and kindness (Romans 2:4). These things are much more attractive than arguments, however clever the arguments are.

“Christian” is not a badge to pin to one's chest nor is it a set of rhetoric that explains why one is better or smarter than anyone else. Christianity is a loosing of the cords that bind and blind the rest of civilization. Christianity is freedom. It is freedom from pride, violence, bigotry, judgment, and fear which sap our energy, kill our joy, and repulse our neighbors. Christ sets us free indeed (John 8:36).

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8&9)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Merry Christmas OR God's Blessings and Rationality

Assume every human is acting in in their own self interest, or at least what they perceive to be their self interest. I find this is a frustrating and disillusioning assumption because it allows kindness and cruelty to be motivated by identical desires and emotions. For example a person may shoplift, soldier, or parent out of a desire to feel powerful. Fathers may abuse or nurture their kids because of a desire for their kids' to not turn out like them. A person who acts in their own self-interest is said to be, rational. Assume Jesus is rational, and consider the following:

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35)

I believe there are two plausible reasons for a rational Jesus to say such a thing. One painful explanation for his claim, that it is better to give that to receive, is that Jesus was lying. Like many cult leaders Jesus could use his influence over peoples moral beliefs in order to profit from “enlightening” their point of view. It's not so far fetched; people have used Jesus' word to do exactly that for centuries. The scandal of the thing would be a lot of fun to write about, but I'm afraid no one got rich off of the Christian religion until after Christ was dead.
The other explanation I come up with is that Jesus actually believes that giving serves his interests better than receiving. If that is that case then we can assume that he would do everything in his power to give, and that scripture would record little of him receiving. The only instances of Jesus receiving anything that I can recall are times when he took meals from a host, when he took a donkey into Jerusalem, and when the “sinful” woman anointed him with perfume. That's not a lot of receiving when compared to the rest of Jesus' life. Jesus' life was characterized by constant giving, the giving of cures, the giving of food, the giving of dead relatives back to their families, of teachings, blessings, fish, of time, affection, and attention. The best example is the giving of his life on the cross.
If this is how God's son conducted himself on earth, it seems reasonable to conclude that a life of sacrifice is in fact the most profitable way a person can conduct themselves. That may sound like an evil reason for living generously; however, it is sensible that the God who determined the rules of the universe would make virtuous living beneficial if he actually wanted anyone to try it.
Now assume God is, has, and always will act in his own interest; please remember that he knows giving to be more blessed than receiving. God's motivations become clearer. God's action of creating the world, allowing the Fall, delivering Israel from slavery, giving the law of Moses, sending his son, sending his Holy Spirit, and every other divine act recorded and unrecorded is an instance of God giving. God gave Adam his breath, and he gives us his son.
God has created a universe where we, the created beings, have no concrete means of giving to our God. We have nothing that we haven't received (1 Corinthians 4:7). We cannot even work or earn our way into our God's presence or good will. We receive those things as a gift.
When God gives, he doesn't do it so that we can owe him something. God doesn't give gifts to win our favor. God doesn't give to be an example of generosity (although He is a good example). God doesn't give begrudgingly or reluctantly. God gives because it's more blessed to give than to receive.
I don't believe that our relationship to God is at all like that of a beggar or a freeloader. I believe that God wants and likes to give. I believe that God is delighted on levels we cannot comprehend when he gives his gifts to us. Our earth, breaths, longings, passions, arts, food, days, nights, hopes, and selves are his gifts to us, and each gift we receive from him blesses the Lord.
Bless the Lord by enjoying his gifts, material and immaterial, and enjoying deeply the holy blessing that it is to give. Merry freak'n Christmas .

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Happy (Belated) Thanksgiving

I'm prone to little bouts of depression. I get a feeling of emptiness, inadequacy, purposelessness, and my general way of dealing with these bouts is to try to achieve or accomplish so much that I can't help but feel good about myself. It doesn't work.

I was at the gym the other day. I was there because I wanted to do so much that I'd eventually have to feel good about myself. While running I had a mental dialogue with myself that lead me to a frightening conclusion.

I asked, “Why am I running”

“To release Dopamine, I responded. “I feel bad. If I can release enough Dopamine I'll feel better.”

“Won't you need more dopamine to feel good latter then, won't you have to do more? Can't you build up a tolerance?”


“SO it's hopeless; the more I do to feel good, the the more I must do to feel good.”

My conclusion is unfortunately true. Unless I make a practice of appreciating things and intentionally enjoying them, I can expect to find little satisfaction in what I do, no matter what I do.

God has designed humans with an innate desire for pleasure and, I believe, an innate incapability to obtain pleasure when we seek it for it's own sake. Happiness springs and grows out of one's ability to appreciate life in every breath, mindfully rejoicing over blessings and trials. Scripture says to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), so it should not surprise us that this practice of thanking God, leads to more happiness than any circumstance ever could.

Take a moment now to consider and take joy in the sound of your keyboard, the feel of the chair beneath you, the breath in your nostrils, and the words on your screen. Praise God no matter what condition you find yourself in, because it is your praise and not your condition that is instrumental to your happiness.

Happy Thanksgiving, brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

An Insecurity Articulated

I want, with desperate passion, to matter. I want my life to mean something. I want to change the course of my neighbor's life by helping her get custody of her grandchild. I want to write and publish books before I turn 30. I want to be a teacher so that I can change the lives of my students by illuminating their minds, iron-cladding their confidence and unleashing their passions and potentials upon a world that expects ordinary. I fear and hate the idea of being remembered as ordinary, of being forgotten, of not building something that will still be around in 100 years. I crave significance like a smoker craves nicotine. I revel in the thought that I've improved the world. I find exhilaration in knowing I've been instrumental in preventing at least one suicide. I am deflated again by the memory of a suicide I could not prevent.

In school I never wanted to be an exemplary student because the students who focused on achievement were too busy to effect their environments. I always thought that the most studious, hard working students were being duped into irrelevance by allowing their self-worth to be attached to the points of a rubric. I always did my best to learn everything I could from a class without studying to pass someone else's test. I wanted to be smarter than the smartest students, and I wanted to show it by NOT getting A's, joining honor societies, or making Dean's lists. I wanted to show it by saving lives, enriching souls, and freeing spirits.

Whatever the best possible pursuit is, that is what I want to put my hand to. I want to master Tai Chi so that I can have a calm, powerful mind to counsel with, and a quiet power with which to defend the weak. I want to cook with the inspiration and cunning of James Beard, because I know that food is a universal language and I secretly hope that a perfect cup of coffee can change the direction of a man, family, or nation.

I have a friend who's story I have promised in writing never to publish. Though she goes unnamed, I will say that she brought the written word to a nation that had never known it, and brought a tribe of cannibals into the kingdom of God by putting the New testament into their language.

She is the most significant person I can imagine, and I strive to not live in the fear of being nothing like her. I fear insignificance. I fear an impotent life. I also know that a life of fear is likely to be a powerless, self-destructive life. I am therefore left to ask myself, what mindset can I take on, what cause will I champion, what is of real importance that I can pursue fearlessly and without insecurity? What should I be? The Pastor? The literature teacher? The Youth Minister? The Father? The brother? Author, business owner, CEO, lawyer, warrior, poet, counselor . . .

The people who have had the greatest shaping and illuminating impact on me are a Bible translator, several literature teachers, a youth minister, a Boy scout leader, a Tai Chi instructor, two parents, and a handful of authors.

What unifies these individuals is that they all performed their role as a service and worship to God, with the exception of one teacher and a few authors who glorified God inadvertently through their wisdom, integrity, and generosity.

My prayer is that God makes me like them. I want to speak with the words of God; I want to illuminate the world. I do not know how best to do it, what role to take or job to hold, but I rest assured in my [very Lutheran] belief that God will accomplish his work in spite of me. My role is to yield to the Holy Spirit's movement, to fall deeper in love with the God of love and to gush that love every day of my life until it kills me. Dead to my own ambitions, I can live without fear, knowing that my significance shall be eternal, and no consequence of my own action as Christ shows through me and carries unto completion the work began in me.