Monday, January 28, 2013

Mission of God's People - Chapter 3 - Part 3.4

I love to blog, I really do, as writing is one of my passions but I find that it too often takes a back seat to other priorities. Then when I am sidelined getting started again involves overcoming a basic law of physics - to overcome inertia requires more energy than keeping something in motion. I was sidelined  over the past 4-6 weeks with a hospital stay and then the flu, which naturally put me behind in other tasks, so I'm only now getting back to completing this 3rd Chapter of the Mission of God's People.  Would you pray that I remain healthy and on track to blog through this wonderful work in good order? Thanks. 

When last we met we were discussing creation care as fully alive human beings who ruled and subdued the planet we inhabit. We concluded last time with the statement that "We should not separate care for the “all things created” in him and for him (Colossians 1:16) from our mission as God’s people." We need to rethink how we see our world and we need to see our place in and responsibility toward the world as part the whole Gospel. 

I realize that this idea may raise some theological concern, given our a well entrenched Evangelical dualism that separate the world and the "spirit."  So I also introduced the Hebrew concept of Shalom which we will be developing as we go. Shalom means wholeness, not just peace. It is a return to the very good of God's original design, or as much as we can experience this side of the new creation. Understanding shalom should bring us to a perspective of the creation that honors God in all things and that begins with a proper understanding of our place in his created order. 

Renowned Conservative thinker,Thomas Sowell posits that "The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best." The creation narrative tells us that God alone knows what is best and he mandated that we care for his creation, with a proper respect for and understanding of whose creation it really is. The problem we have is we too often fall on one of two opposing sides in this world, with respect to how we view the creation. Either we fall on the side of human sovereignty, we can decide for ourselves to eat from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. Or, we think dominion means we can live any way we want as long as we're "rapture ready." 

On the former, those who eat from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, think they understand what needs to be done to "heal the planet." The problem is that the "eaters" assume the role of care-taker without the knowledge of who is ultimately in charge. Then they impose their will on others thinking they know what is best. On the other side, those who claim to know the Creator, we'll call them the "fleeters" (due to their  hope of vanishing) push back against the "eaters" but seldom offer a reasonable position on the care they have been charged with. But who gets to decide what is best? The answer for living sent today should be obvious - God and His Word does.

We cannot expect the "eaters" to change their viewpoint, without repenting of their eating of their choice tree. We can however rethink how we who claim to know the Creator view God's world. Wright points out that also requires repentance, which is simply a change of how we understand what is important to God. We need to align ourselves with a perspective of seeing the fullness of God in all that he has made. Wright quotes the Apostle Paul here at length: 
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant." (Colossians 1:15-23).
Take note of what Wright points out here: "Paul is talking about the whole creation...the whole of the created order - not just human beings...Paul includes creation in the saving power of the cross...the blood of Christ, shed on the cross, is the means of reconciliation of creation to God, not only sinners....the order of Paul's argument here is also revealing and runs counter to the way we tend to describe the gospel."  

Could it be one of the reason that we don't grasp the whole Gospel, the Gospel Paul preached to the Colossians, is we start from the wrong perspective? Wright points out that "our trajectory" with it's "built in dualism" is individual -> church -> world -> heaven. We start with ourselves and we look toward heaven as our destination, while the Church grows weaker and the world more corrupt. But Wright turns this around by observing that...
"Paul's gospel works in the exact opposite direction. God has a big plan indeed. Paul starts with creation - and relates that to Christ as creator and sustainer. Then he moves to the Church (v 18), which will be the people of the new creation, because they are in Christ, who is the firstborn of the new creation just as he is the firstborn of orginal creation. That is to say, the church belongs to Christ because all things belong to Chris, but also because the church is already, in this creation, the anticipation of the redeemed people of God in the new creation. Then, having spoken of all creation and of the whole Church, Paul sums up their totality in the reconciling work of the cross. Finally, having stretched the grand plan of God for the whole universe and emphasized the centrality of the cross within it, Paul adds - "oh yes, even you too ["and you" at the beginning of v. 21 is emphatic, you get to be part of this...reconciled through faith in this Gospel, which is now for everybody everywhere." 
Paul in fact turns the world upside, from our self-focus to a Christ-centered, Christ supremacy, Christ first focus. Paul's Gospel is Christ-> church -> world -> self thus inverting, or better reverting to, how we are to see our place in the world. Wright concludes, 
"So our care for creation is motivated not solely by the fact that it was created by God and we were commanded to look after it, but also by the fact that it has been redeemed by Christ, and we are to erect signposts towards its ultimate destiny of complete restoration in Christ. God's redemptive mission includes creation. Our mission involves participating in the redemptive work as agents of good news to creation, as well as people."
Pragmatically, doesn't that make sense? Creation was designed, in part, to sustain human life. It was created good to support the spread of the knowledge of the glory of God. If our only ambition is to get people to heaven and we bypass thinking rightly about creation, our Gospel comes up short of what Paul understood it to be. Then we miss the whole Gospel we are seeking.

It certainly may be easier to shorten the Gospel to salvation for humans only and await the new creation, however unBiblical that in fact is. But would it not be more glorious to have it said of us as we go and be the people of God in the world: “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too." (Acts 17:6 - NKJV). The whole Gospel mandates that we be people who care for creation. Living sent today requires it. 

Q - What changes can you make in your life to embrace your creation care mandate?

Next time, we'll start Chapter 4 - People who are a Blessing to the Nation.


Monday, January 7, 2013

Intersection of Faith and Politics: A Christian Response to the Gun Control Debate?

The Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy has caused a not unusual response.  Everyone has once again been given a disturbing reason to make their positions clearer. That this latest school shooting involved young children has made it even more emotionally-driven. My heart still aches for all the parents forced to endure the Christmas Season without their babies. Every time I think about it tears well up. I’ve posted a number of comments on Facebook about his tragedy to express my own thoughts but want here to write more extensively about this issue and weigh in with what I hope is a Christian response. You can let me know by posting a comment if I achieved by goal.

Pro-gun advocates are arming for the battle with guns sales soaring while anti-gun advocates are calling for disarmament and Hollywood hypocrites make a video saying “it’s time” while continuing to earn millions through violent films. Personally, I’m not as much a proponent of gun rights as I am a opponent of logical fallacies, a misconception resulting from incorrect reasoning. The opposing camps both need to understand that neither side has it completely right since much of what we believe is based on our imperfect perception of the world. Maybe Hollywood has at least one thing right that it’s time to at least give serious thought to this 2nd Amendment issue, and maybe in a way few are talking about. 

In my opinion, the facts tend to support the pro-gun side of the argument. The fact is there are about 11,000 murders committed annually by those who use guns in the course of committing their crimes. It is simply a logical fallacy to say that guns commit murders, since such is an impossibility for an inanimate object.  A 2011 Gallup poll estimates that 47 percent of US households own a gun, for an approximately 50 million American household. If we consider each of the gun related murders a household we arrive at the fact that 99.98% of Americans households who own guns are responsible law abiding citizens in any given year. It is simply emotionally unreasonable of the anti-gun side to look past the fact that the overwhelmingly majority of Americans, almost 100%, who own guns do so responsibly. There really is no rational basis to penalize the many for the crimes of the few. Such emotional response of gun control proponents is not the way to make good public policy.

However it would also be a logical fallacy to say that access to guns doesn't make it easier to commit crimes like Sandy Hook, especially since the expired assault weapon ban in 2004. Easy access to weapons such as ARs and AKs, coupled with lax or non-existent background checks, compounded by improper care and storage of household weapons (which was the case in Sandy Hook Elementary), does allow those who would commit such horrible crimes to get their hands on these weapons. Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass shootings across the country and in 49 of those cases the gunmen obtained the weapons legally. Therefore it is another logical fallacy that our protocols for legal gun ownership are not at least part of the problem.  Another logical fallacy, known as a genetic fallacy, is to link efforts at gun legislation today with history of gun confiscation under communist or fascist governments of the past. Such speculation based on history is also an emotional fear-based response. 

Now what? How do we proceed with all the emotionally based arguments? How do we have a reasonable debate, about such an important issue, with all the emoting going on? Knee jerk responses will never produce well-reasoned public-policy. It is worth the effort to have a rational debate for the common good of our nation. Some compromise is needed from both sides but the discussion must be broadened to other important issues that create a culture where such tragedies as Sandy Hook have become all too common. Ronald Reagan thought so which is why he supported Bill Clinton's assault weapon ban in 1994. But our problems go well beyond gun rights or gun control, both arguments simply miss the point. There are mental health issues and spiritual issues that must be addressed in this national conversation.

It is estimated today that more than 40 million American are on some form of anti-depressant drug, Adam Lanza among those. There are many factors that drive this epidemic and no easy answers on how to solve it, especially without a spiritual component. The mental health of our nation is perilous and a few are driven to commit such atrocities as mass shooting. Postmodernism and secularization, which I believe to be the root of our national emergency, has disaffected many from any basis of truth or a purpose for living beyond themselves. Value for life is lower today than even a decade ago,  if our national suicide rate, especially among young adults is any indication. What Sandy Hook and our depression epidemic should clearly show us is that we need something real beyond ourselves to hope in.  It should also demonstrate the emptiness of the world’s values that infect our 21st Century culture, that may contribute to the lack of mental health in country.

A recent Huffington Post article cites Frank Newport, author of "God is alive and well in America," as saying:
"the correlation between religion and well-being has been established by Gallup and many other organizations. The question is causality: Maybe healthier people choose to be more religious. But it's clear that religious (people) are less of a drain on our mental and physical health systems. So, a company may want to give discounts for employees who attend church four or five times a month, just as many give discounts for employees who go to the gym. If America were to become more religious, and this is controversial, it would become healthier."
Such a novel idea who's time may have come again as an answer to our gun control debate. But are American Christians ready to respond with real answers for the hope that we say we have? I don’t think many when we have so much syncretic political belief mixed with our faith. Many American Christians are gun owners who place a premium on their rights to bear arms. Where does the idea come from that American Evangelicals in particular stand on 2nd Amendment rights, but from our cultural heritage? We need to take caution that we don’t mix our faith with too much Americana. Other Christians approach the subject from a pacifistic position. They believe that Jesus was opposed to any form of violence and therefore they are for gun control. They need to be take caution that they understand the inalienable right to self-defense even Jesus agreed with (see Luke 22:36). But who is right?  How can we communicate to our culture a united message as Christians? 

Some Christians who are for gun control will look to Matthew 26:54 for support. There Jesus says, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” But pro-gun Christians might look to the same verse that begins with Jesus saying, “Put your sword back in its place," and note that the Lord didn’t tell Peter he was wrong for possessing a sword, he simply warned about the consequence of living by the sword. Sometimes looking to the Bible doesn’t provide clear direction for such issues. Other times it can tell us clearly the direction we need to go.

Certainly Jesus calls us to be peace-makers (Matthew 5:9) but he obviously also understood the sin laden dangerous world he had entered. The fact is Jesus allowed Peter to keep a sword in his presence. The Lord didn’t come to disarm the world but to save it from itself. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” But Jesus didn’t call upon Heaven’s armed forces because he understood what he had come to do. The reason he told Peter to put away his sword was because Jesus understood his time had come (John 13:1). Nothing would keep him from completing his mission. 

How then do we communicate a united message as Christians on this issue? I would like to offer these 4 ideas for starters. First, by showing proper respect for others who have a different opinion on the subject (1 Peter 2:17). We must not allow our witness for Christ to be tarnished by how we respond to others we disagree with. Second, by not allowing truth to be outweighed by our emotions or politics (Philippians 4:8). Honest debate is a good thing because no one has all the answers, as much as we think we do. Third, by focusing on the Gospel message which is something every Christian should agree on (1 Corinthians 1:10). Jesus did come to bring justice and establish righteousness (Matthew 12:18) and the darkness of our nation will not be overcome except by the Gospel. Finally, with much prayer for God’s will to be done and his purposes to prevail. Anything short of at these four, at least, is not a Christian response. 

We cannot expect that our secular government will understand or agree with any of these ideas but that should not really be our concern as Christ followers. Neither should our concern be with unrestrained gun ownership, even if our founders understood that no government should disarm its citizenry. Rather our concern should be with the spiritual health of our nation, which requires the advance of the Gospel, and peace of our society (Psalm 34:14), even Newport points to. And, our primary concern should always in all things by all means be that Jesus is made known. 

The Apostle Paul who also lived in troubled times, actually more troubled than our own since Christians were being brutally persecuted for their faith, instructed Timothy with these words:

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Perhaps maybe when we make prayer and proclaiming Christ our primary focus all our politic issues will work themselves out for the glory of God in our nation. Regardless of what happens in this national debate we are called to do both anyway. Can I get an Amen!?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Mission of God's People - Chapter 3 - Part 3.3

Happy New Year! I'm looking forward to what the Lord will do with 2013! I recently wrote a 20 day prayer guide entitled "Live It! People who live His Story." to begin the New Year for my home church, Christ Fellowship, you can download here. 

So we’re to live as fully alive humans but how do we do that (see Part 3.2)? The fruit of the Spirit is a good starting place of what it might look like to be fully human but how do we live  that outs as our own? I don’t know about you but I still struggle with every one of the fruits regularly.

I certainly wouldn’t say I’m fruitless. I would sure hope not after 16 years as a Christ follower but that’s only by God’s grace. I do take solace in Paul’s confession of being bruised fruit (Romans 7:21-25) But I want to be fruitier and maybe that’s really it. Our desire for being a more fully alive human coupled with the knowledge of what that might look like as the image bearers of God multiplied by the power of the Spirit at work in us is the only way that will lead us to a fruit-filled life. Not that we ever become perfect fruit bearers but we can attain a more consistent fruitfulness as we understand more about who we are in Christ and what our Lord expects from us. To get there we need to understand who we are as humans and what we have been tasked to do.

Wright has taken us back to the beginning, back to Genesis 1, to understand something of our human responsibility, our original God given mandate 

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them;male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:27-28) 

It is necessary to understand our unique role in creation to live as fully human, especially as we have a propensity to turn away from those assignments, even as Christians. While God allowed us the free will to choose otherwise, he had a plan on how it was supposed to be. Wright tells us that there our two fundamental things about us that are clearly connected as being part of our fundamental nature as humans. First, that God made us in his image, and, second, God intended us to exercise dominion over creation. But as Wright points out: 

"It is not having dominion that is what constitutes the image of God, but rather that exercising dominion is what being made in God’s image enables and entitles us to do. We humans have a mission on earth because God had a purpose in putting us on it.”

There are three directives in the Genesis mandate we need to embrace. The Lord gives his newly created humans orders to “multiply and fill the earth,” to “subdue” it and to “rule” over it. Wright doesn’t deal with the first in this chapter but we need to understand the “multiply” in terms of God’s mission. Multiplication is not only for the propagation of the species but more importantly the advancing of the knowledge of God’s glory. It has always been God’s intention to fill the earth with the knowledge of who he is. God is motivated by his global glory so it would only make sense that he had it in mind at creation. Living that truth out well then takes expression in our mandate to “subdue” and “rule.” We could say it is our “prime directive”  (that is if we are a Star Trek fan). 

Wright does elaborate on the meaning of “subdue” and “rule.” He states here that these “are strong words, with a sense of imposing of will upon another. However, they are not terms that necessarily imply violence or abuse (though some critics of Christianity lay the blame for ecological disaster at the door of these two words and the freedom they allegedly give us to rape the environment – a charge that has been well refuted.)” But as Wright rightly points out… 
“human dominion over the rest of creation is to be an exercise of kingship that reflects God’s own Kingship. The image of God is not a license for arrogant abuse, but a pattern that commits us to humble reflection of the character of God. “ 
Is it safe to say that too often American Christians haven’t really thought about this subject, at best, or at worse contributed to the charge of the critics? Have we arrogantly assumed we didn’t need a well thought out position on creation care as part of our faithl? While, I don't find a compelling reason to buy into today's all too prevalent climate alarm-ism (although Wright seems to on this point - we can agree to disagree on minor points), we do need to treat God’s world well in the safekeeping we have been tasked with. It is a requirement of the mission of God’s people that we are to live the whole Gospel, as it is a part of the mandate God gave humans  - or “the rocks will cry out” (Luke 19:40). 

How would it reflect to our culture if Christians actually led in important ways in caring for the world God has gifted us with? Not as the most important part of our mission, there are priorities, but in a way that reflects what the prophet Micah understood when he said, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” That’s not just a spiritual call, or a call to a social Gospel, but as well a call to a holistic worldview that treats all of God’s glorious creation as God desires. 

This may be best captured in the ancient Hebrew concept of “shalom” (more on this in future posts) that treats all things as sacred - from God - and they are, right (Psalm 24:1, 1 Cor 10:26)?. Space here today won’t allow me to elaborate but I believe a “shalom” based theology, anthropology and missiology may well be the answer to being a fully alive human. Living a shalom lifestyle would help us to recalibrate our lives around “beholding” God in all things he has made, and that includes humankind (2 Cor 5:16). King David, a man after God’s own heart, understood that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.“ 

It’s easy to stand on a mountaintop beholding the beauty of God's creation, with the ruined places of our world out of view, and “declare our God reigns. It’s easy to live with cultural blinders and not see the broken places of our world, except perhaps through our TV screen. It’s even easy to contribute, if even unaware, to the structural imbalances and injustices that mankind perpetuates against creation and the image of God. But if the glory of God is man fully alive how do we respond to our polluted global cities, urban blight, or overcrowded slums? How should we be moved by famine ravaged regions, the inequalities of healthcare access, the lack of clean drinking water? To name but a few areas of our "ruined streets." 

Can we declare “our God reigns” and then not seek the restoration of those broken places for his glory? Should we not bring humble kingship over those “ruined” places seeking to subdue and rule in accordance with God’s “very good” plan? Why is it that so few Christians actually live in accordance with our mandate? Could it be we have some wrong ideas we need to rethink? 

Closer to home, what excesses do we need to address in our own lives that contribute to the neglect and contamination of our world? Do we even give such ideas room for thought in how we live our lives? It wasn't that many weeks ago that so many were decrying the end of the Twinkie. That should tell us something about what we think is important, no? I confess I have only recently started to think more healthy and make efforts to live that out

When Jesus tells us to go and make disciples of all nation, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything he had commanded, I don’t think he meant for us to pick and choose what parts he wanted us to obey. The Great Commission is great because it is “all” encompassing. We should not separate care for the “all things created” in him and for him (Colossians 1:16) from our mission as God’s people. If we are concerned with the whole Gospel, with being fruitful Christ followers, I have become convinced this too is part of living sent today. 

Other links to consider:

Q – How might subduing and ruling take practical expression in your life?