Tuesday, June 30, 2009

They think they're on to us

Jerod Clark at the ThinkChristian blog tells a fascinating story: apparently EA (Electronic Arts) wanted to boost attention to their new video game called "Dante's Inferno," so they hired actors to put on a mock Christian protest outside the largest video game conference in the US! (http://www.thinkchristian.net/index.php/2009/06/30/mocking-christian-protests/)

The fake mob carried protest signs ("Hell is not a video game") and even had a web site which Clark says parodied the bad design of some church web sites.

So, the publicists for EA recognized what some Christians don't: outraged protests about cultural markers often just drum up interest in the thing that outraged the Christians!

When cooler heads prevail, we recognize that Jesus just didn't act this way. In fact, the Pharisees faulted him for his lack of outrage at sinners. But the gospel writer John pointed out that Jesus didn't need anyone to tell him what was in a man (John 2:25). Instead of protesting what made sense to "sinners," he demonstrated God's love for them/us and invited us to follow Him.

Jesus sat down to eat with the folks the Pharisees were outraged at. The only time Jesus ever shows amazement in the gospels it is at the hard-heartedness of those who are supposed to be the "God-people." Why do we continually wind up acting like the wrong ones in this story?

It's not that the world doesn't come up with some outrageous stuff (and a video game about Dante's Inferno doesn't even raise a goosebump). But our job is not to rage at the darkness; it is to bring the light, in just the way that Jesus did it. So we're better off spending more time with Jesus in the Bible, and in prayer, and less time scrutinizing the culture for signs of depravity. The world will show up without us having to look for it, and we'll be much better prepared to be like Him when it does.

Jonah was a whiner; am I?

Last week I attended our denomination's annual meeting: the Covenant of which we are a part, sees itself as a gathering of members, only the members are each churches. Together, those churches pursue Jesus' work in the world, able to do more than each could by themselves.

The focus for our meetings together was "the necessity of the new birth" - this is one of our affirmations; for more info, check out www.covchurch.org -- and at one evening's worship service, our director of evangelism, was the preacher.

Her text was Jonah, and here's what she challenged us with: Jonah, we read in the Bible, was sent to Nineveh to tell the people there that they were in trouble with God and were about to be judged. But Jonah runs away (remember that whole story about the big fish?). Ultimately, Jonah accepts his assignment, goes to Nineveh and brings the message - and then he gets himself a ringside seat to watch God wipe out Nineveh.

But instead, the Ninevites take him seriously! They turn from their depravity and seek God's face and desire to be made friends with God - and God takes them up on it.

You'd think that would be good news, but not to Jonah. Jonah is put out! He wanted fire and brimstone; he wanted them to "get it."

Then we read in the Bible this strange set of circumstances; while Jonah waits on that hillside in the searing sun, God causes a plant to grow up quickly, and Jonah finds shade under its leaves. But the next night, God allows a worm to chew through Jonah's plant, and Jonah finds himself without shelter in the baking sun again, and he declares he is ready to die.

And God calls him on it: Jonah, you're so concerned about your own comfort, and you complain and argue. But there's no room in your heart for the Ninevites..."who don't know their right hand from their left." God makes it plain that God's heart always was for the Ninevites, and it sets up in stark contrast the venal, self-regarding heart of Jonah, who didn't give a fig for the Ninevites and was disappointed that they didn't get punished, but was consumed with concern for his own comfort.

Rev. Orris put the question then to us: are we more concerned with our own comfort, or have we cultivated hearts like God's, that begin to hurt for those around us who don't know their Maker and Father, who "don't know their right hand from their left"? If we aren't telling others the good news, what reason do we have for that?

I'm not sure if it was Rev. Orris who said it or if it the Holy Spirit's challenge to my own heart, but I am reminded again that my relationship with God through Jesus isn't because of my own merit or even that of my parents, but instead it was Jesus who loved me before I was even able to love him. I am, through no merit of my own, "God's workmanship," chosen to do good works which were prepared for me in advance. (Eph 2:10). The word for "workmanship" is poema, from which we get "poem" -- we are God's craftmanship, his work of art, which pleases him and makes us ready to do what he's given us to do.

So I can't sit on the hillside and wait for the world to go to hell in a handbasket. If it weren't for the grace of God I'd be in that handbasket! So am I sitting in the hot sun, deploring the lack of shade, wondering why God isn't making me happy? Or am I out there in the world, open to being used by God to help someone else find new life and hope in the One who loves us so much?
Has it become obvious to me that, instead of being poised to punish the world, God has already taken the punishment of the world on himself, that his crowning creation might be rescued?

Jonah really comes off as a whiner in the scriptures, and yet I was touched by God's continuing work with him, patiently showing him how his whining demonstrated how far he was from the heart of God. God is patient, but it would be great if I could learn from Jonah's mistakes!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"The Shack"

Finally read The Shack (by William P. Young) on a cross-country flight this week. I had heard a lot about it (I think it was on the NYTimes bestseller list for a long time last year). Some said it was a great allegory; others said it was unbiblical. I just didn't know what I was going to think about.

Well, I loved it. It's the story of a man who is angry with God after a terrible tragedy - and God actually invites him into the Trinity's relationship, to have his ideas about God reshaped. I wouldn't want to ruin it for anyone - but I sure do recommend it. I do, that is, as long as the reader remembers it is an allegory written by a mortal, not scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit.

But it is carefully written...and for me, anyway, it was very moving. Let's put it this way: I cried so much through it, I'm sure the flight attendant thought I was headed for a very sad event on the other coast.

One of my favorite moments was when Mack, the main character, answers his host's questions about his children. As his recounting of his children's welfare is carefully attended to, it occurs to him that his hosts already know all this, yet he is still carefully listened to. Why is that, he inquires. The explanation is touching: because his hosts voluntarily limit their own "knowing" in order to hear his accounts, because God wants to hear about how he sees his children. What an enormous picture of what happens when we pray! How much God loves us, to listen to our prayers!

I was discussing the book with a friend at the Covenant Annual Meeting - he said that it just didn't move him. It wasn't that he found it doctrinally deficient, he said, but it just didn't move him. He said that he wondered if that was because he didn't have kids - and that may be true. The Shack certainly touched me in a very deep place as a parent; I don't know how I would hear it if I didn't have that experience. Love to hear more from others about the book.

Crying for Freedom

Last weekend, I was riveted by the Twitter thread and live-blogging from the streets and rooftops of Iran. It was thrilling to hear of regular people making a decision to take back the power that had been used against them; it was, however, tragic when it sank in that these voices belonged to real people who were being beat up and even killed for taking such a stand. The thrill was diminished when I considered that if my family were there, I'd probably prefer that my young adult children not participate in such high-stakes speech. And yet, guiltily, I do want the people of Iran - particularly the women of Iran - to prevail in their efforts to have their say over the powers that seem to have stolen their votes in their country.

So what would be worth such risks, if it were me and mine? What does Jesus really think about these issues?

Despite the tendency all his followers have had to co-opt Jesus for whatever their cause has been over the millennia, Jesus in the Bible seems to be relatively disinterested in the political fray of his day. It wasn't that the situation was any better - Israel was occupied by a pagan empire that regularly offended Jewish values. The people were overtaxed by the occupiers and again by their own people who collaborated with the Romans. Their local rulers didn't stand up for them against the Romans, and their local religious leaders added to their burdens.

When Jesus arrived on the scene at the start of his ministry, the zealots - the activists who were trying to undermine or overthrow the Romans - thought he might be recruited for their cause, but Jesus paid them no mind. When Roman taxes were due, Jesus paid them (however supernaturally).

Jesus just as quickly distinguished himself from the party of the Pharisees, who were trying to get everyone to obey the Jewish law meticulously, the better to encourage God to bring Messiah to overthrow the Romans -- Jesus intentionally healed unworthy "sinners" over and over again on the Sabbath, to the Pharisees' outrage, proclaiming that God had made the Sabbath to serve humanity, not humanity to serve the Sabbath.

Everyone who tried to get Jesus on their side wound up disappointed. The gospels display a Jesus who was quite clear what his cause was, and he didn't make alliances with other causes: his cause was God's "kingdom," the emerging of God's rule over a new administration and a new tribe, the beginning of a new thing that was going to endure right through the end of the world and beyond. This new thing would be made up of people who had been made entirely new from the inside out, spiritually, by him, and these people would begin to display his characteristics and to do what he did in this world. What they created together was supposed to show the world how things are when God is in charge.

That new thing is what the church is supposed to be, and it does still endure, even though it is surrounded by a whole lot of fluff and mess that Jesus' followers can't resist creating, too. The real "kingdom" of God is supposed to be our main cause, and never to be supplanted by any other. The kingdom is where earth's inhabitants are supposed to find real freedom, real healing, real acceptance, real love. From that kingdom, we earth-dwellers who belong to Jesus can also engage on issues of war and peace, prosperity and poverty, propriety and freedom - but without losing sight of the eternal big picture and for whom we always work (and why: there is no freedom while we are estranged from our Maker).

I believe in freedom; I believe in free speech and voting rights and democracy. I think that in our broken world these are the best ways for humans to thrive (and while we are at it, the best circumstances under which the church can thrive). But they are not my main cause and can never be: I'm already taken by the kingdom of God.