Monday, June 30, 2008

Sin-less

We've come a long way from Johnathan Edwards prophetic image of mankind as the spider.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire...
The apostle Paul wrote something similar, placing us in the lineage of Satan and calling our destiny 'wrath' (see Ephesians 2:1-3). God holds no affection for transgression and sin.

Unfortunately, the term sin is becoming curiously absent in our culture. Whether it's been modified for cultural equivalents, or exchanged for the banner of empathy, the long-term effects are worrisome.

Where this is most evident is in the writing/preaching of younger generation leaders, like myself. In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell's therapist says his issue is 'sin.' In an interesting turn of phrase, Bell translates, "I was split... I saw I had all this guilt and shame because I wasn't measuring up to the perfect person I had in my head" (pg. 114). In effect, 'sin' is an offense against myself, not God. Sin is my brokenness, emptiness, weakness, shame, dysfunction.

Moreover, we've grown weary of the church being labeled judgmental--which, in light of Jesus' great sermon (Matt. 7:1-5), is laudable--and thus swung the pendulum in favor of the sinner. As revealed in Kinnaman and Lyon's recent publication, unChristian, the church has a reputation for casting stones (and ballots). This perception is damning to (and from) the church, so Christians must create a new perception "show[ing] grace by finding the good in others and seeing their potential to be Christ followers" (pg. 181). On the surface, this suggestion is fine; however, when considered theologically, the potential of any person to follow Christ rivals that of a corpse. We were all dead in sins and trespasses (Eph. 2:1).

But there's more. In the absence of 'sin,' our talk gravitates toward love. "Why judge," I read, "when you can love?" Again, on the surface, "Love is a many splendid things, love, lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!" But love separated from sin, covers nothing (see 1 Peter 4:8). True love must acknowledge sin.

The church may now be in the twilight of sin. My fear is that we no longer offer the resurrection power and life of Jesus, but a forced empathy and a feeble love. We're on course to sell out the whole gospel to popular psychology and group therapy. We will give people all benefit and no doubt. And perhaps no faith, either.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Slang

I'm a young bol, which in Philly-talk means, a guy under thirty. Next year I'll be considered an old head. Of course, by then the language will change. Slang is short-lived; the language reflects its urban originators, whose median age is 23 (nationally, the statistic is early thirties).

I'm a lover of language. Etymology enthralls me; a thesaurus enchants me; and I'm a geek for slang. Each subculture has its idioms, jons, and vocabulary. I couldn't learn it all 'in a minute' even if I tried.

But I did learn a few terms this weekend, both from the street and the construction site.

The men in our church did a two-day work project at CE National's Urban Hope Training Center. The ministry comprises more than seven facilities spanning a single city block. We worked in the youth center basement: moving cement, dumping trash, fixing plumbing, wielding power tools, and building a wall.

Men bond well around piles of sawdust and stacks of treated 2x4s. Those with calloused hands and splinters taught the ones with paper cuts and carpal tunnel the lingo of construction. I learned that cripples and studs have nothing to do with your gait and hairstyle, but they are support structures within a wall. I learned that plumb wasn't just a fruit but a wall that stood flush, erect, and level. And I discovered that Sawzall was not a country in Africa, but a prototype reciprocating saw tool useful for deconstruction.

I grew my vocabulary from hammer and nail to chop saw and Remmington actuated fastener, and I may have grown some chest hair in the process.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Inflamation

During my last three days of Operation 08, I spoke with a sore throat and the sweats. Every speaking engagement taxes the glands, but this was profuse. And I can't blame it on nerves: It was viral.

One night after discussing our identity in Christ (e.g., I am chosen, saint, Spirit-sealed, beloved, alive, workmanship, powerful, new creation, bearer of God's image, child of God), my body took a hit. It started with a tickle in my throat. Then a tenderness in my lymph nodes, swelling of my eyes, and dizziness ensued. I went to bed in convulsions; the Benadryl didn't relieve much.

My study in our Christ-given identity came solely from Ephesians. There Paul elucidates the 'riches in Christ' (3:8) we share as believers. These riches, above and beyond our salvation, include the truths cited above. Some of the students looked bored as I revealed these identity markers; they were waiting for the next movie clip. Other students took notes and jotted questions.
  • What do you mean 'we're alive'? Of course I am, I'm breathing.
  • What does it mean to be a poem of God (Eph. 2:10)?
  • How can I be 'powerful' if I feel so powerless?
  • Does God really love me?
These are not questions limited to the adolescent mind. The adult, long since accepting the treasure of salvation, tends to remain ignorant about identity markers. We live within the cultural roles of parent/employee/deacon/neighbor/Republican/taxi driver, and feel defined by our doings. True identity is a duty-free good.

Paul likens this 'ignorance' to a former way of life--the futile life of the material person (Eph. 4:17). Embrace your new life! he writes (Eph 4:1-16). Live your calling!

But it is difficult to live what one does not know. Sloppiness, boredom, and flippancy in the Christian life have more to do with faulty thinking about our identity in Christ, than petty responses to others/circumstances. And our thinking is chronically under attack.

To the core of his nature, the Enemy is a liar. More than forcing us into situations where we might sin (those are unavoidable), he peddles lies--lies primarily related to our standing with Jesus. Thus, it is no afterthought that Paul closes his letter to the Ephesian church by recognizing spiritual warfare. The Enemy seeks to usurp truth and plunder our 'riches in Christ.'

And if those truths are coming across too palatable, he will likely go for the throat.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Defining Moment

It was a defining moment: I provided the students with five minutes of silence. Five minutes in a large group can be eternal, but it only scratches the surface. As Dallas Willard notes, it takes time for muddy waters to become clear.

We all have muddy waters. We all have filthy hands. Our habits, our strongholds, our alliances soil us. Silence gives God a chance to speak to these areas.

As I prayed in the back of the room--for my own issues and those of the students--I sensed an unhealthy degree of anger among us. It had come to the surface in the silence, through questions many of the students were asking: Is this over yet? Why do I have to do this? This is so hokey? This guy doesn't know me, how can he tell me I have filth in my life?

If they only listened to these questions... They prove the need for silence; they explain the need for confession.

"This was the defining moment of the week," I assured the youth as the silence closed. I gave them a opportunity to act upon their confession. Two 10-gallon planting pots were placed at the front. One was filled with soil represeting our filth; the other represented Jesus as the recipient of the dirt within us. "Give your filth to Jesus," I said, "if you want His full life."

Several kids reached in, some in earnest, others in form. We sang songs as youth walked up front. There was dirt everywhere, but mostly with Jesus.

As a speaker, I cannot judge the motive of spiritual activity in a person's life. Altar calls and symbolic replies only show that people heard you ask for a response. The lasting value is uncertain. But for a few minutes, the room was defined by reverence. For a few minutes, the room was defined by worship.

Then sound system screeched. Once. Twice. The screech turned to a cackle, stealing any reverence left in the room.

God does not hijack sound systems as His people sing hymns and confess sins. He works through silence, soil, and human hands. Someone else was trying to define the moment: our Enemy. He works through distractions. And he clearly defined his goal for the week.
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
Come near to God and He will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and
purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:7-8)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Sad, you see

My earliest run in with the Sadducees was at youth camp. I did not want to be a Sadducee "'cause they're so sad, you see," I sang. Apparently, being a sheep was preferable.

Since that little ditty, my experience with Sadducees has expanded. I met them again, though not at church pot-lucks, that is more a haunt for Pharisees ("'cause they're not fair, you see"). Sadducees hang out at smoke shops and universities. They wear tweed jackets, smoke pipes, sip espresso from 4-ounce mugs, and discuss God like a recurring archetype in Joyce's short stories.

Josephus tells us that Sadducees were boorish (The Jewish War). Rabbis recount their numerous debates (e.g. Yadaim). Jesus said they were greatly mistaken (Mark 12:27). God must be more than a conversation topic.

That Sadducees denied the resurrection puts them in a similar category with today's secular humanists. Life is material, they argue. The here/now is all that matters. Meaning is coterminous with brain function. They might order a second shot, relight their pipe, and discuss the virtue of abortion, carbon credits, and standardizing sex education.

They would call these 'honest opinions.' C.S. Lewis, in his brilliantly composed The Great Divorce, calls them 'sins of intellect.'

The damned man argues: "[My opinions] were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it."

Like Jesus, C.S. Lewis' glowing protagonist calls this thinking a mistake. Honest mistakes about God, when they move God from the object of our affections to the topic around the table, are inexcusable. He summarizes:

Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about this best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do not occur as psychological events in the man's mind...But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.

For many people Faith may be nothing more than routine, vocabulary, or drifting opinion. How sad, you see.