Friday, October 26, 2007

I Love the Rain

I know many people don't like it when it rains, and that there are some folks who get the blues when it's rainy. But I've always loved the rain.

I think it would be very interesting for someone to do an in-depth study on the Bible's 'Theology of Water'. Of course, the chances are good that someone has done such a study and has published something on it, and I'm just not aware of it. But as with many things, my surface level impression is that Scripture's theology of water is rather robust. There are a number of times when water is expressive of divine wrath and judgment. The Genesis flood obviously comes to mind, but there are also a number of psalms (Ps. 42 as one example) where water seems to be portrayed as an ominous force. On the other hand, water is also expressive of abundant life and blessing. The great final vision of Rev 22 of the waters flowing out from the new temple providing abundant life is the most obvious example.

In my lifetime, I've personally seen both sides of this coin. I've seen terrible droughts and have watched the beauty of creation literally dry up and die from a lack of water. On the other hand, I've also seen the destructive power of water; especially when I went into the New Orleans flood zone on a missions trip shortly after Katrina.

So I know that water has the power to be destructive and harmful. Yet, I still love the rain. To me, rain is the great giver of life to virtually all living things on this planet. When we're in the midst of drought, as we have been for most of this year, I find myself getting very sad watching plant life die, and the landscape turn brown and dusty. It's always a sober reminder that life is fragile, and that self-sufficiency might sound good, but doesn't really work over the long haul.

I love to watch the rain. For me, it's one of those very simple pleasures that brings joy to my life. Rain relaxes me and ironically makes me feel pleasurably small. When I watch the rain, I feel like I'm watching life itself. The earth and everything in it is being nourished and fed, and there are times when I totally get lost in the moment of seeing God's creation and ecosystem at work right in front of me. After a long day of working hard on supposedly important vocational concerns, I discover my smallness when I sit on the porch in the evening and watch the rain. I always consider it an enormous privilege that God has allowed me to glimpse his divine stewardship over his creation, and this never fails to evoke rejoicing over God's goodness in making constant and regular provision for his creation.

As Colossians 1 says, all of creation was created by God and for God, and it is through God the Son that all things hold together. While much of what God does to sustain his creation is invisible and goes unnoticed, the rain of life is the most captivating way I see the truth of Colossians 1.

I love the rain, and I love the God who makes the rain even more.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Thirst for Identity in an Impersonal World

Recently, Lesley Stahl did a segment on 60 Minutes that addressed the latest identity craze - finding one's ultimate country/tribe/clan of origin through DNA analysis and comparison. Stahl interviewed a woman who had undergone such analysis. Initially, it appeared there was a definite DNA match, and that the woman could trace her origin back to Senegal (I believe, I can't quite remember now). Upon learning this, the woman was euphoric, believing that a whole new doorway had been definitively opened for her to better understand her identity. Almost immediately, she felt a sense of belonging and better understanding her place in the world. With this information, it seemed like the possibilities were endless in terms of researching her origins, reconstructing family history over many generations, and feeling connected with a whole community both past and present. The woman seemed to take this is as a watershed event in her life.

But perhaps unfortunately, Stahl wasn't done. Stahl then proceeded to provide this woman with other DNA analyses that pointed in different directions regarding identity and origins. One analysis indicated that her DNA pointed to the Ivory Coast as the place of origin. Another analysis said Ghana. It quickly became apparent that DNA origin mapping was not an exact science, and the woman was clearly a bit distraught that DNA analysis seemed unable to help with definitively giving her some sense of identity.

I took away a number of observations from watching this piece. First, these DNA mapping companies are very smart and will make a mint doing what they do. They are smart enough to realize that there is a potentially enormous market of people, particularly in the West, who would jump at the chance to learn more about where they came from. But why is this? Why does there seem to be such a powerful urge to answer questions of origin? This leads to my second observation.

Western society is increasingly losing touch with the personal and with the grounding of community. We live in a virtual world, where the virtual is largely replacing the real, and where beauty is literally being bulldozed for the sake of functionality. One only need reflect on the Springfield Mixing Bowl for a few minutes to see how the impersonal functionality of brute pragmatism has largely torn away the community fabric that once existed here. Functional relevance has come to dictate identity rather than the other way around. And people in increasing numbers likewise feel bulldozed and uprooted from community grounding, and this makes them hunger for a sense of belonging and identity.

In the church, pragmatism and functionality (for the sake of 'relevance') have become the accepted idols that are embraced. Pragmatic functionality might look different from church to church, but it's all the same in philosophy. Whether we're talking about the slicked-up corporate-style megachurch experience, or the equally calculated emerging church fad, identity and community are largely contrived and technique-driven, and mostly shallow. Churches have largely embraced the secular model of allowing their identity to be defined by relevance, so that 'relevance' (usually defined on the culture's terms) sets the agenda for the church and defines its identity. But of course, it's not difficult to see that this kind of identity is not much of an identity at all, because it's not grounded in anything perennial. In the end, the church itself looks just as rudderless and uprooted as the impersonal culture that drives so many people to hunger for something deeper.

This is largely why people are looking elsewhere to gain some sense of place, identity, and belonging. What churches, particularly liberal ones, don't understand is that most people need and want something more than flippant acceptance. They want a vibrant community with roots and origins - and challenging and conforming responsibilities. By definition, a community is some group that while containing differences, is nonetheless bound by unique and commonly agreed upon traits that are traceable back to previous generations. But when a church swears off its own heritage, abandons its theological tradition, and puts all the focus on present relevance and defining their future by what the culture might value next, there's no grounding; there's no tangible identity; there's no lasting sense of belonging; responsibilities are ethereal; there's no origin to commune with that roots the community. This means that the whole idea of identity in community loses its robust characteristics (identity), and becomes a fleeting (uprooted) enterprise marked by chasing (functionality) after the wind (impersonal).

If the church truly wants to be 'relevant', it needs to stop letting 'relevance' define its identity. A great paradox of the church that has often borne true is that the harder the church tries to be culturally relevant, the less effective it is in being culturally relevant. The church needs to know who she is in Christ. She needs to understand her own identity robustly, in community with its theological tradition past and present. In our day of having our sense of belonging uprooted by impersonal functionality, there is little the church can offer that would be more attractive than having its own robust sense of belonging define its relevance to a culture that has no sense of belonging. But doing this requires the church to ditch the arrogance that thinks it knows better than previous generations. The church must once again get in touch with its own origins and letting its identity be influenced thusly, rather than being totally obsessed with the here and now of doing church, and all the faddish flavors of the month that go with it. Churches that do the latter are only offering inconclusive DNA analyses to those who are hungering for something deeper and personal. The thought that the church would keep people from finding true humanity and identity in Christ because it's lost its own identity by letting cultural fads set its agenda ought to be scaring the dickens out of every pastor in every church. The fact that few seem to be concerned at all is very telling, and explains much.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Barth's View of Sin

At the outset, let me loudly proclaim the refrain of Sherry MacKenzie: "I'm not a Barthian; I'm not a Barthian; I'm not a Barthian!" But let me also say that along with Dr. MacKenzie, I don't think Barth had horns or a pointy tail either. And while I must part company with Barth on a number of serious things, there are ways in which Barth can be helpful. That doesn't mean we should follow Barth wholeheartedly, but it does mean we should listen with discernment in the anticipation that we might learn some things of value from him.

One area where this is the case regards Barth's view of sin. Again, I'm not suggesting that our view of sin should align in totality with Barth. To the contrary, sin is a very complicated topic with many facets and many layers. Barth's view is one take on sin that while not capturing sin in its totality, is nonetheless a thoughtful perspective that is due our consideration.

Barth thinks about sin in ways that most of us don't. Barth develops his doctrine of sin around the concepts of 'pride' and 'sloth'. Like everything, Barth sees sin through lens of Christ. For Barth, sin is everything Christ is not. So from this vantage point, Barth appeals to the great christological hymn of Philippians 2 as the basis for understanding sin as being the opposite of Christ. In Phil. 2, Christ is depicted as emptying and humbling himself and being diligently obedient to the point of death. For Barth, Christ is, among other things, humble and diligent. So for Barth, a good way to think about sin is in opposite concepts from what Christ is shown to be. Instead of humble, sin is defined by pride. Instead of diligence, sin is defined by sloth. Pride is the opposition to the humble condescending movement of Christ out of the heavenly realms and into a world of darkness taking on human flesh. Sloth is the refusal to awaken to the new found freedom we may now possess of being truly and actively human through the fellowship of Christ. Christ shows us a new way of being human (the way of love and obedience) and creates a new fellowship with humanity. For Barth, sloth is the failure to embrace this new way of life.

For Barth, sloth is easier to hide than pride, but it's no less sinister. Sloth is inattentiveness toward our responsibilities, and our highest responsibility as humans is to wake up and listen to God. The book of Hebrews in particular tends to see unbelief in the form of laziness. For Barth, if we really understand what sloth is, we will see that it is the indifference of hate. It's not just that we aren't paying attention out of tolerant indifference. It's that we're ignoring God out of hate because we don't want to be illuminated by God or conformed to him. As one example, the sinful failures of omission highlighted in the Good Samaritan parable resemble Barth's idea of sloth. When sin is defined this way, all of us are incredibly guilty. Proverbs 26.12-16 bring pride and sloth together. People are lazy because they are prideful. People have erected a whole worldview that is counter to God so that they don't have to do what God says, or so they think.

There is much more to be said about sin than what Barth says. If we follow Barth completely, there is the danger of minimizing other aspects of sin, such as unbelief, idolatry, and misery. But Barth's view of sin can be quite helpful when seen as one vantage point of sin. The idea of sin as pride and sloth collaborating to stand in total opposition to the person and work of Christ is thought provoking and worthy of serious reflection. Barth has given us a way of understanding sin that should deepen the understanding we already have, and provides fodder for fruitful examination not only of ourselves, but the world around us. Such a pursuit should inevitably lead to a deepening understanding of the greatness of Christ for conquering it all, and bringing his followers into the same victory in God's good time.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Football Stadiums - America's New Houses of Worship

How many of you have seen drawings or paintings depicting a time in which a church building was at the center of a town's life? Over the years, I've seen many paintings depicting townspeople converging from all directions upon a church. Whenever I see a painting like this, my interpretation is that the artist is giving us a vision of a church being at the center of the community's life not only geographically, but socially and spiritually as well. It is the place where the whole town comes together to worship in one voice as a faithful community. For some artists, such depictions are not only nostalgic looks at the past (although one wonders how accurate such scenes are), but are also hopeful visions of the future as well.

But in our day, when it comes to discerning what the real centers of worship are in our towns, churches have largely been replaced. Instead of the town embarking on a faithful weekly pilgrimage to a church, the faithful weekly pilgrimage of today is to a very different destination - the football stadium. Whether it be high school, college, or professional, football stadiums are the places to go if one is looking for America's passionate houses of worship today.

This past Sunday after church, I went to FedEx Field to watch my Washington Redskins play host to the Detroit Lions. Along with 90,000 other people, I had a great time as the Skins dominated the game. But for those 4 hours, it was clear to me that I was in a house of worship. People were passionate. People wore jerseys announcing their allegiance to some particular hero on the field. People flocked to the stadium by the thousands from every direction for as far as the eye could see. People cheered with one voice. There was even a marching (praise) band leading the worship after every Redskins score. Instead of people worshipping in community inside a church building, people gathered in the stadium parking lots to experience community tailgating style. People were excited. They were very happy to be there. And the fervency of their loyalty to the Redskins could very fairly be described as a form of worship. FedEx Field has become the great cathedral of Washington DC where the entire town gathers on Sundays to go to worship. And I was among the faithful.

I'm obviously not suggesting that football is bad, and that Christians should swear off football. But I do think we should be paying attention not only to our own attitudes about football, but also to what football has become in our society - and what it has largely replaced. Human beings are built for worship. God made us that way. But as with all things, human beings have largely corrupted this instinct (Romans 1), so that their worship is often misplaced and misdirected. America's Sunday worship ritual in stadiums around the country is an eloquently sad reminder of how far worship has strayed from its proper object. And it is also a sad reminder of how the energy and unbridled passion of real worship that we find in our football cathedrals is largely absent from the Christian cathedrals in our towns. Secular doxology often outdoes true doxology in its passion and praise. And this tells us that something is very wrong.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Sober Scare

A couple weeks ago, Reggie Kidd was clobbered by a drunk driver who ran through a red light going 65 mph. On the right side of my blog page, there is a link to Reggie's homepage, and he has put up a picture of the now totaled car he was in when he got hit.

Reggie teaches NT at RTS-Orlando. I had the great privilege of being his teaching assistant during my last semester at seminary, in addition to taking a number of classes with him as part of the MDiv program. In addition to being a formidable scholar (his work on the Pastoral Epistles is first rate), he also has a great talent and passion for music and worship. His recent book With One Voice is a very thoughtful and irenic treatment of worship written for a wide audience. Put simply, while Reggie is not a "big-name" scholar, he is every bit as much of a gift to the church as a Frame or Carson.

Reggie has made a critical impression on my Christian walk. If someone has done their homework, he/she knows that Reggie is on the ball as a Christian thinker. He's one of those guys who you know knows a lot more than you ever will. Yet, when you meet him, he immediately impresses with his humility and gentle spirit. Reggie is not afraid to speak his mind at times, and to say some provocative things that sometimes need to be said. But he's not in the business of pulling power-plays on people, and given his pedigree, that's an extraordinary characteristic. During my time with him, I found him to be very patient and kind. He solicited my opinions, and even more impressively, he respected them even though the distance in maturity and intelligence between him and I was far as east is from west. Many others who have had the privilege of knowing Reggie would probably offer similar testimonies.

It was, therefore, unnerving when I learned that Reggie was on the receiving end of a brutal wreck. As I learned during my time at RTS, seminary is not the place to go if one is seeking a respite from the tragedies of the real world. To the contrary, there was not a single semester when I was there that the seminary community wasn't galvanized by at least one crisis or tragedy that had intruded. What I came to learn was that as hard and difficult as it was, things like Reggie's scare actually deepened our ability to live out RTS's mission of having "A Mind for Truth. A Heart for God."

I am thrilled that Reggie is on the mend. I am thankful that God mercifully protected Reggie and allowed him to walk away from a wreck that could have been fatal. I am pleased that God obviously thinks that his church continues to need Reggie at this point in her history. For my part, fewer things are more obvious than that.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Biblical Balance

Christianity is a very tough faith to live. One of the reasons this is so is because Scripture stresses realities that seem intractably at odds with each other. The God of the Bible is a God of love. But he is also a God of wrath and judgment. Human beings are depicted is both depraved and dignified. God is portrayed as supremely sovereign over all things big and small, yet, the choices and decisions of human beings are real and seem to matter a great deal. What are we to do with such polarities, and can a proper balance be struck that can inform how we live? The answer is 'yes', but perhaps not in the way we might think.

It is very tempting to look at the love of God and the judgment of God and try to find balance by watering both realities down and settling on what I call a 'mushy middle'. This mushy middle is possible because both concepts have been sufficiently defanged to the point where the polarity that once prevailed no longer exists. By watering down both concepts, we hope to be able to forge some reconciliation between them and achieve balance. But this is not biblical balance at all.

Biblical balance is a much harder notion than the idea of achieving balance through domesticating robust concepts. Biblical balance involves radically stressing both polarities, and living in the tension that this creates. Put simply, finding balance is the much harder exercise of allowing the robust nature of each polarity to juxtapose and augment the other. As I blogged about this past Easter, the crucifixion in particular is wondrous and excrutiating all at once precisely because so many seemingly polar opposites intersect at the Cross - good and evil, love and judgment, mercy and justice, belief and unbelief, etc. The challenge not only of the Cross but all of Christian living is taking Scripture's emphasis on the polar realities seriously and not watering them down where Scripture does not.

This concept of Biblical balance is extremely difficult. We must understand that it's much more comfortable and easy for us to water down or deemphasize certain realities so that we can arrive at an approach to life and doctrine that is clean and neat and doesn't challenge us in any ongoing way. Take any example you want, and we'll see that this is true. The perennial divine sovereignty vs human responsibility debate is a classic example. Rather than radically stressing both realities and living in the tension that this creates, most of us tend to exalt one in part by watering down the other. Neo-Calvinists who so stress the sovereignty of God too often arrive at a paper-thin doctrine of human responsibility. Likewise, those who insist that authentic human responsibility is only possible if human choices are free from interference too often arrive at a paper-thin doctrine of divine sovereignty. This is not biblical balance - it's a cheap way out of being radically challenged by the WHOLE counsel of God. And I would argue that a great majority of the church today is taking this easy way out on a whole host of critical issues. Is it any wonder that we often have trouble seeing Kingdom power in our midst?

Human beings are not only creatures of habit, they also seem to long for a certain simplicity. Now let me be clear, as one who has read many commentaries and theological treatises over the years, I don't contend that people's elaborate attempts to sacrifice certain realities for the sake of exalting other realities is simple. But I do contend that it is a far simpler and more comfortable road to take than to be faithful to the whole counsel of God and affirm all of what it says with the same vigor that it itself does. People don't like living in the tension. It's inherently uncomfortable, it is often unnerving, and it's not nearly as self-affirming as the watered down approach in making us think we pretty much have a grasp of Christianity, what it teaches, and what it demands.

I'm not saying there aren't aspects of Christianity that are simple - there are, that's part of the beauty of it. But I am asking whether the quest for a comfortable simplicity is really the highest goal we should be shooting for? To me, a vigorous pursuit of the truth is the highest goal, and I have discovered that truth is sometimes very complex and decidedly beyond our ability to easily grasp. A quest for simplicity will inevitably compromise our quest for truth, and for those of us who claim to be faithful to all the Bible teaches, this is simply not an option. As difficult as it is, we have to be willing to be challenged by ALL of what Scripture teaches, and not appoint ourselves as arbiters of what can and cannot be watered down when it comes to handling God's Word. We have to be willing to stress what Scripture stresses, even if the result is that we have to live in the tension that comes with not totally understanding how Scripture's polarities meld together. It's better to do this and stay faithful to Scriptural teachings and achieve biblical balance, than to compromise the inspired words of God in order to avoid being challenged by them and risk upsetting doctrinal schemes that don't insist on hard veridical examination.