Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Value of Rituals for a Culture

Many people follow empty religious rituals, or even practice evil and harmful ceremonies. We should be careful to avoid such sinful practices and we certainly do not want our faith in Christ to be simply ritualistic.

But there is great value in developing healthy habits into our lives. Rituals in a positive sense are simply highly purposeful habits. They are practices that are always done in a particular situation and in more or less the same way.

Research shows that as little as 5 percent of our behaviors are consciously self-directed. As creatures of habit, most of what we do occurs rather automatically. This where is regular practices or “rituals,” if you will, fit in. Rituals are precise, consciously acquired behaviors that become habitual in our lives, driven by a deep sense of purpose. If done wisely such practices build structure, rhythm and purpose into our daily lives.

These are not magical formulas, and they certainly are not practices that merit salvation. We are wonderfully free in the Spirit of Christ, and our salvation and standing before God is all of grace. We must never loose sight of this.

But we live in a culture that has neglected healthy Christian practices — ones designed to help balance and enrich the structure of our daily lives, healthy habits that help us to flourish as God’s people. Most important are habits of daily prayer and Bible reading, of regular worship, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Ask the Lord to enable you to establish healthy habits that will help you grow in your faith — then practice these “rituals” with a relentless passion and purpose.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

To Vote or Note to Vote: The Question of Christian Witness In the Public Square

A number of years ago a collection of essays recommended that Christians seriously consider the option of not voting. I am revisiting these essays.  My recommendation had been that the Church vote, but do so in a uniquely Christian way. When a follower of Jesus votes for a political candidate (whether it be a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent), I argued, it should be as an act of witness.  This vote as witness needed clarification, for in various ways the “witnessing vote” was a reticent vote.  It could never be a decision as to which candidate the voter can endorse one hundred percent. Now the situation is such that I am wondering whether or not I can vote at all in the presidential election.  I am wondering if fidelity to "votng as witness" now means not voting. 
It is true that the believer ought to confess that every politician and every political system on this side of the new creation is flawed and tainted. So where the Christian can vote in good conscience, he or she cannot cast an unreserved vote; this, too, would equal being taken captive by the powers. By its very nature this reserved voting is a witness to “better things,” to the  “world to come,” which the New Testament promises.  But sometimes the political situation has decayed to the point where just voting would be evidence of being taken captive by the powers.  Are we facing such a situation in 2016? The question should at least be asked.
The vote as witness, where possible, needed to be a qualified vote because the Christian was only voting for that which could be faithfully celebrated in the candidate’s character and platform (not for the entire character and platform). Part of his or her witness was to make this clear: in acknowledging the candidate’s or the party’s flaws, the Christian bore witness to the broken human condition. But what if the character is so flawed, and so unChristian, that there is little left to celebrate?  How can we vote for a person who claims to represent Christians, but exhibits the spirit of an antichrist?  Do we take the mark of the beast?
I have admitted, in the past, that voting "as witness" was a difficult way to vote, for the voter’s reticence was not directly reflected in the ballot count. What made the voting reticent was mostly an acknowledgement in the believer’s own mind that the “vote” was just a vote, and not a “bowing of the knee.” This reticence was first known in the Christian’s own heart, and that mattered immensely. At the public level, it demanded that the believer actively participate in grassroots political conversation to make this “witnessing vote” clear. But more importantly it demanded that the Christian’s whole life reflect a message of political reservation. His or her vote was counter-intuitive to the usual way of politics: it could never be triumphant (no pun intended!).  But perhaps today such political reservation must lead us to NOT vote for a presidential candidate at all, but focus instead on other political activity, where one's conscience is not sold out.  
So the restrained way in which a Christian votes, or now does not vote, is still both a witness to the political system’s imperfection and a witness to God’s impending righteous reign. Such reticent about voting is a witness because its very standoffishness speaks of confidence in another citizenship, in another sovereign. The Church’s hope ultimately lies in a different Candidate-Elect!  He is the only one who can fully bring justice and peace to a broken world. 
While the Christian takes seriously his or her vote, or now the decision not to vote, its significance is not to be exaggerated. This would betray the witness. More important than the “vote” is the Spirit’s bringing of the kingdom, however provisionally and proleptically, through the mission of the Church. So the Christian intentionally, and in the community of faith, seeks other and better ways of concretely modeling kingdom life, of manifesting in seed form the culture of the world to come. The Church’s “vote (or no vote) as witness” proclaims that she still waits for the kingdom whose builder and maker is God.   
Such an orientation of voting as witness leads the Christian to a unique set of criteria for voting.  For example, the criteria we use to make a judgment about mildly better or worse consequence must be in terms of God's special provision for the poor and oppressed.  That is, our criteria are not fundamentally about what will make my life better or America stronger or protect the middle class, but which policies are more or less likely to provide some measure of care for those who are unable to care for themselves. Determining the consequences of a vote can be notoriously difficult; but the criteria are clear. Today the very emphasis on "making America great again" is totally out of step with these criteria. 
There is a final “witness” inherent in the Christian’s voting practice: he or she votes, or does not vote, deliberately and intentionally, but also penitently, bearing witness to his or her own finite and fallen condition – and likely failure of good judgment. The Christian must vote or decide not to vote; the Christian in so doing acts, and faithfully participates in what ways he or she can in the political process. All the while the Church should bear witness to the grace that heals society’s sickness (even the political one) and atones for people’s sin (even the sin of a poorly cast ballot; or the potential sin of refraining from casting a ballot at all). So the Christian acts, believing that God may be pleased to use his or her humble act of faith to make a difference for good. The Church’s “vote as witness” points to the coming Kingdom of Christ, but it also acts responsibly to make a difference now, whether by actually voting, or by withholding a vote. 
When the believer can in good conscience participate in the political process, he or she votes to bear witness to God’s grace and to the full hope that can finally and only be found in the good news of Jesus Christ.  And when the time is such, that any vote would deny the gospel, the believer does not vote, and in that way still bears witness to the Lord of all the earth.  

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Greatest Danger

"I must be frank with you: the greatest danger confronting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind in its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. But intellectual nurture cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. People who are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the gospel have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is vacated and abdicated to the enemy." (Charles Malik, 1980)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Being God's People

"The Church is a congregation, set to draw all people of whatever kind into one family. But it is also a mission sent to the nations, that is to say, sent to people not as isolated individuals, but to people in the full reality of their cultural, social, economic life as people. For the fulfillment of that mission it is not enough to say 'Come -- all are welcome'. It is also necessary to go, to leave the establishment behind, to make daring experiments in seeking to learn what it means to live the life of Christ in every one of the idioms and patterns of the myriad human communities. It is necessary that the corn of wheat fall into the ground in order that the particular fruit of that ground may be brought to perfection in Christ. But yet again, all the fruit is to be brought into one store. The variety is for the sake of the unity of the Body of Christ that each may serve not itself but the whole. This going and coming, this scattering and gathering of fruit, is the very life of the Church when it is true to its proper nature."  (Lesslie Newbigin, Honest Religion for Secular Man, p. 111, 1966).

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Missional Reflections on Violent forms of Islam

             To be a follower of Christ requires speaking the truth in love.  The impetuous apostle Peter had learned this, and instructs us, “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).  This means that we must treat followers of Islam with “gentleness and respect.”  The King James Version says “with meekness and fear.”  

When we engage Muslims, we are hypocrites, if we claim to bring them a message of good news from God, and yet act in an ungodly way towards them.  We must take to heart the words of the prophet, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8).  We must, by God’s grace, strive to be disciples of Jesus in the very manner in which we do our mission work – we must pray for the fruit of the Spirit in our lives:  especially love, joy, and peace.  This focus should encourage us to imitate the way in which the best missionaries of the past have engaged with Muslims – they have done it with empathy, fairness, compassion, as well as courage and truthfulness.

One scholar, who had worked with Muslims for over fifty years, towards the end of his life and reflecting on his own careful study of Islamic resources wrote,

This also helped me to learn (to try) to reflect with Muslims, to understand with empathy and friendly criticism.  It is this also which was the basis for my teaching of Islamic studies in various Church institutions especially in Egypt.  For I try to present Islam, as far as possible, as Muslims would wish to see it presented, with objectivity and affection, which in no way prevents a critical view and questioning.  I consider it necessary to apply the Gold Rule of the Gospel to one’s observation and understanding, then to try to look at the other and understand him as I would myself wish him to regard and understand me.  (Christiann van Mispen tot Sevenaer, “A  Man of Dialogue,” [2012] in Christian Lives Given to the Study of Islam, 130).   

            This may be a challenge for us as frail human beings when we are engaging with people who are progressive Muslims, or moderate adherents of Islam, or even non-political traditional Muslims.  It requires an extra measure of God’s grace when we are dealing with radical or puritanical Muslims – the so called Islamists, whether Sunni or Shia. On the ground some Islamists could be, depending on the circumstances, people bent on violence against others, and against our brothers and sisters in Christ, or even against us personally.  But it is precisely here that we are put to the test by the Lord, who taught us to love our enemies, do good to them that hate us, and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:38-39).  “The commending of the Christian faith has to be in accordance with its own character, with the inner coherence of word and deed in the person of Jesus Christ” (Christopher Lamb, “An Engagement  with Islam,” [2012] in Christian Lives Given to the Study of Islam, 159). Surely, we need grace and wisdom here, beyond our own ability. 
            It is helpful, of course, to remember that there are as many understandings of Islam as there are Muslims.  Again, we must not fall into the error of essentialism.  Too many political commentators, talk show hosts, and unfortunately Christian pastors, fall into the error of reading the puritanical interpretation onto all Muslims and onto Islam as a religion. Here, whether we agree or not with the thesis of Miroslav Volf’s, book Allah: A Christian Response, we ought to appreciate his desire to address Islam in its best light and not in its worst light.  He writes, “For me here the ‘paradigmatic’ Muslim is the great and immensely influential thinker Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1056-1111), and not, for instance Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), the most popular representative of radical Islam” (Volf, Allah, [Kindle], loc 253).   The great missionary Samuel Zwemer focused on al-Ghazali, as a Muslim seeker after God, who shows Islam at its best.   

            It is a mistake to argue that the true Islam is the most violent or viral form of it.  It is both unjust towards Muslims who hold different views as well as politically unwise.  It is also simply disingenuous, when thinking about Islam, or when interacting with Muslims, to compare and contrast an idealized picture of the “Christianity,” with the worst form or features of certain expressions of Islam.  We must bear witness to the Scriptures and the truth of the gospel (if we are, in fact, followers of Jesus), but we should be careful to distinguish it from our own failed attempts to fully live up to its standards within “Christianity.”  At the same time we should let Muslims state what they believe Islam to be.

Why should we agree with the puritanical Islamists that their expression of Islam is the correct view?   Does this not inadvertently give weight to their cause?  Again, there are as many views of Islam as there are Muslims, and there are certainly a great variety of traditions and expressions within the world of Islam, both in history and today.  But radical and dangerous forms of Islam do exist in the world, and the gospel compels us to love and share the gospel by life and word with those caught it its clutches.  Here the saying of the Lord Jesus is especially applicable:  we are to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matt 10:16). May the Spirit help us to live in obedience to our Lord, and share his heart for all people.

Friday, May 21, 2010

To Change the World: A Fourth Political Theology

James Hunter's book, To Change the World, is a stimulating challenge to the question of church and culture. Hunter's identification of the two essential tasks of the church with regard to culture and power are worth pondering:

"The church has two essential tasks. The first is to disentangle the life and identity of the church from the life and identity of American society. The second task is for the church and for Christian believers to decouple the “public” from the “political.” The way of Christ differs. His way operated in complete obedience to God the Father, it repudiated the symbolic trappings of elitism, it manifest compassion concretely out of calling and vocation, and it served the good of all and not just the good of the community of faith."

Hunter's groundwork for an alternative approach is described as follows:

"Christians are called to relate to the world within the dialectic of affirmation and antithesis. If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better, but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor. Antithesis, in contrast, is rooted in recognition of the totality of the fall. Consequently, however much Christians may be able to a affirm in the world, the church is always a “community of resistance.” The objective is to retrieve the good to which modern institutions and ideas aspire, to oppose those ideals and structures that undermine human flourishing, and to offer constructive alternatives for the realization of a better way."

Both of these above paragraphs are taken from the abstracts to the various chapters of his book, which Hunter provides at his web site.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Church's Particularity

“Each church…reflects a distinctive culture or cultures…Regardless of its relationship to the prevailing culture around it, a given church is itself a cultural community with its own language, spoken or unspoken rules of conduct, expectations, and the like. While it is possible to discern authentic and inauthentic expressions of the gospel and church in a given culture, it is impossible to separate the gospel and the church from culture….As Newbigin sees it, ‘The idea that one can or could at any time separate out by some process of distillation a pure gospel unadulterated by any cultural accretions is an illusion’” (Exploring Ecclesiology, by Harper and Metzger, p. 275).