Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Social Lament With No Simple Answer

I regard it among the most dehumanizing aspects of modern social technology, that in a span of seconds we are assaulted with the most horrific evils followed by the most vapid entertainments. Casual scrolling reveals first a marriage, then stories of State-sponsored rape in the Middle East, followed by tips for dying hair, and last, some information regarding the sale of unborn humans. How can we not be paralyzed? The pace of information cripples us, so that we feel powerless to do much but scream for the world.

Persons with sensitive consciences are brought almost to despair at every hour by endless reports of worldwide crime. Those impassioned enough to shout at their screens still do not know what, if anything, they can do to make a difference. The majority instinctively harden themselves to withstand the flood of bad news.

I am not saying that we should avert our eyes from the truth. I suggest, however, that we consider whether it is within our human limitations to daily expose ourselves to this absurdly staccato juxtaposition of vanity and holocaust that is, for many of us, social networking. Somehow I doubt it is healthy or natural to read about gruesome murders and the next instant to answer quizzes on celebrity fashion. Yet we are developing a remarkable propensity for it, much like German chefs learned which spices compensate for the smell of burning human flesh.

I have not found the answer to dealing with this challenge, but I am experimenting. To start, rather than follow all the daily headlines into depressed oblivion, I am trying to focus on a few subjects of concern in a given week or month. These I consider in detail for a period of time with the goal of forming concrete plans of action to address them in real life. Whether a response involves writing letters of condolence, supporting candidates, drafting articles, or organizing political movements, is up to you. At minimum, I believe one's ritual should entail a time of prayer and meditation that at least equals the time spent reading the news.

I grant that it is easier to gawk at the nightmarish carousel of devilry that spins round the clock, than to get up and jam something heavy in its gears. Reading and sharing the news doesn't in itself constitute change. It's value is to direct our passions intelligently toward action. Beyond that point, overexposure seems to cripple or sear the conscience. If we are to be responsible citizens and Christians, at some point we must each go away and formulate our reaction. For that reaction to achieve significant effect, we will likely need to create or assimilate into organized forms—which calls for leadership, numbers, money. But before all of that, it takes time alone to find words to pray, and words to speak to others. More often now I am choosing to be alone with my lament so that I can be present for the answer.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Something Fraudulent in the Culture of Meaning

From a sermon John Piper preached a number of years ago:
What has changed dramatically in the last fifty years is the concept of meaning and truth in our culture. Once it was the responsibility of historical scholars and judges and preachers to find the fixed meaning of a text (an essay, the Constitution, the Bible) and justify it with grammatical and historical arguments, and then explain it. Meaning in texts was not created by scholars and judges and preachers. It was found, because the authors put it there. Authors had intentions. And it was a matter of integrity to find what a writer intended — that was the meaning of the essay, the Constitution, the Bible. Everybody knew that if a person wrote “no” and someone else creatively interpreted it to mean “yes,” something fraudulent had happened.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Race Relations Relative to Zech 2:11

“Many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people.” (Zech 2:11)

God is saving “a number no man can number, from every tribe and tongue and nation.” In fact, this is the whole reason why he delays his coming—there are still spiritual foreigners waiting to be processed into the heavenly kingdom, from every corner of the earth (2 Pet 3:9)!

What does this say about racism and forms of nationalism that obscure the priority of heavenly citizenship? Our mixed-up priorities are apparent in the casual way we speak. “I’m an American Christian,” or “Chinese Christian,” or “Arab Christian". For eternity we will say, “I am a Christian who was, a long time ago, for a very little while, identified by my race and nationality. Since then, oh, about a million years ago, I've been resurrected to glory and none of that matters so much.”

Whoever looks at me can see that I’m very white. My half-brother Jeremiah is very black. But in the resurrection, for all we know, it will be reversed, or something else entirely. Then my brother and I will feel foolish for having ever discriminated against our fellows in Christ for such transitory things.

"Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility." (Eph 2:13-14)

There is one Christ and he has one Church. Our highest loyalty and sense of identity should fall there. I have substantially more in common with the fourth-century North African bishop, Augustine of Hippo, than I do with my unbelieving mailman. The resurrection will prove it, if my skin can't.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Mere Spirituality

We've all heard the refrain, "I'm spiritual, but not religious." What does that mean? The substance of popular spirituality, says Michael Horton, can be boiled down to purifying and following our own hearts. Ironically, this is the very religion Jesus opposed. To be merely "spiritual" is to lean on one's own potential to become good. It is chic legalism. It is a hip Pharisee in Lulu Lemon yoga pants who thinks the secret of happiness is found within her. Mere spirituality tells us that we can get into good moral shape so long as we work out our "best self."

Jesus didn't tell people to trust their own hearts. Nor did he call them to purify themselves in order to gain God's fatherly favor. Instead, his "religion" was to point us away from ourselves to trust in him. The Christian religion says, basically, that Jesus' perfect obedience and total self-sacrifice did everything necessary to restore and secure our relationship with God. That promise is received through faith, by resting in the overwhelming generosity and good nature of the God who forgives freely. The God who gives his Spirit to sinners before they are good. The Father who purifies sinful hearts only after embracing them in all their filth and weakness.
"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,  in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." (Rom 8:1-4)
If you are in Christ, you are truly spiritual.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

THOUGHTS ON (NOT) BEING PRETTY

"You don't have to be pretty. You don't owe prettiness to anyone... prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space called 'female'." — Diana Vreeland

In a sense, Vreeland is right. You don't owe prettiness to anyone. If your appearance is something others appreciate, that is mostly your gift to be thankful for. Like all gifts, if you have a little extra, you are free to share it with others but no one has the right to demand it.

We might think that, ideally, our character alone should determine what people think of us. Then we could go about in drab, ill-fitting clothes with our hair shorn off, and no one would treat anyone worse for it. Yet this idealism is neither real, nor does it acknowledge the value of beauty. In truth, we are neither spirits without bodies, nor are we mundane meat machines. Humans are embodied personalities, spiritualized organisms. As such, our external appearance has a powerful effect on others.

We observe that some people do not seem to have as much beauty. In order to cope with that fact, we run too far in the other direction. We suppose beauty is entirely subjective and meaningless. The shadow of physical ugliness is done away with, but at the cost of shutting our eyes to the light of physical beauty.

True ugliness is not how things were intended to be. Apart from sin and the consequences of corruption, we should expect that everyone would share a higher degree of beauty. There would be no deformities, no genetic mutations that disrupt the development of one side of a person's face. Instead of denying the original gift of beauty, we should marvel that any was preserved after the fall. We should rejoice in hope for its full restoration in the life to come, purely of grace. For now, however, beauty is tied to misshapen social standards. In a way, it is hard to know what beauty is, except that each person seems to know it when she sees it.

Prettiness is a magic jewel. Many exhaust their lives in search of it, while others polish shards of glass hoping it will pass for the real thing. A few happy people wake to find it slung mysteriously and effortlessly about their necks. God knows from where it came and when it shall go. The magic of the jewel is that its appearance and disappearance is based less on who wears it as on who looks at it. For some people, beauty manifests everywhere. They see it glistening on everyone, even on the necks of those whom society calls ugly.

Isaiah described Jesus, saying, "there was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him" (Isa 53:2). When God took on human form, he chose to identify not with the handsome but with the physically undesirable. He came to console people dealing with the effects of sin and the fall. Yet Isaiah also speaks of the final state, when we are brought face to face with the resurrected Christ. "Your eyes will see the King in His beauty" (Isa 33:17). I have no doubt this is both physical and personal beauty, and that all of those who are raised in Christ will share his inheritance. We will be restored from the ravages of corruption to a beauty that suits a new and everlasting creation. Whether this matches our current notions of prettiness, I have no idea. Nor do I know how we will differ. Both Moses and Elijah appeared in luminous garments on the mount of transfiguration, distinct and glorious. I imagine we will each be unique expressions of God's creative genius.

I wish we handled beauty more like the birds and flowers. They don't concern themselves with the cost of their clothing, but nonetheless manage to cheer everyone up with their striking colors and fanciful plumes. I'm reminded of certain places in Africa which are very poor, where people wear vivid clothing as a way of decorating the town and celebrating what they have together.

Sadly, it is hard to separate beauty from sex appeal, and sex from power-relations, and power-relations from greed, pride, and violence. I find hope in Christ's words, "in the resurrection, none will be given in marriage, but we will all be like the angels." The whole world will experience beauty without shame or insecurity. A foretaste of that happens even now when we choose to see beauty in the right things, in what people are becoming rather than in what they seem to be.

Monday, February 9, 2015

PRACTICAL ATHEISM

I have often associated Psalm 14:1 with outright atheism. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.” In its ancient context, however, virtually everyone professed some kind of religion. The author's point was not what we claim to believe about God, but how our actions reveal our hearts. If I profess faith but act in an abominable, corrupt way, in that moment I live as though God were dead. For the average American—and every Christian—practical unbelief is far more common than outright atheism, and in some ways even more insidious.

TWO MARKS OF AN EVILDOER

In Psalm 14, the writer observes two marks of evildoers. “Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the Lord?”

Evildoers are marked by their zeal to take advantage of others. They eagerly profit at others' expense. It is especially vile to “feed on” God's people, who are often the poorest of the poor, and who have a special right to his protection. Evil hearts look at others hungrily, like bread to be chewed. In contrast, believers feel a loving impulse toward their neighbors, whom we see as divine image bearers. We view the saints as God's chosen people, sheep to be specially cared for—not fleeced and butchered.

A second mark of evildoers is that they do not call on the Lord in sincerity. They withhold the honor God deserves in prayer and worship, and look elsewhere for their needs. Believers, however, have an impulse to call on the Lord. We pray regularly to the Father through Christ as our protector, provider, and king. We come to him in the Spirit, presenting our needs and cares, and praising him for his unchangeable attributes, promises, and gifts.

Whatever you once were, believer, you are no longer an evildoer. Paul says, “such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). In Jesus, you have received true knowledge. Knowing God leads you to put away selfish ambition so that you can seek the welfare of others. From now on treat your neighbors as subjects of mercy, not objects for exploitation. Through the cross we have welcome access to the Giver of every good gift. Call on him daily, trusting the Spirit to enable you for prayer and worship. You have been marked for godliness.