Reacting To Culture

responding-to-culture

For the first time since I became eligible, I wasn’t able to cast my vote for any of the leading presidential nominees without violating my conscience. The developments in the presidential race that have occurred since Tuesday have actually decreased my confidence in our culture and in whoever becomes our next President.

Do I believe the sky is falling? No. However, I think that the nature of this political season underscores concerns we all should have about the trajectory of our culture.

I’ve been burdened by a particular question for a long time. My burden was increased this Tuesday as I walked out of the voting booth.

What is the church’s appropriate reaction to our culture?

One of my favorite author/theologians is N.T. Wright. The following extended quote is from How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. He highlights four tendencies of churches, all of which are misguided, all of which I see happening all around:

By and large the churches have lapsed into one of four (to my mind) unhelpful reactions.

The first is to say that all this doesn’t matter, because we’re going to heaven and we’ll leave this old world behind once and for all. That stance, interestingly, became increasingly popular throughout the nineteenth century, when “heaven” became the ultimate home and “resurrection”—with all its political overtones of new creation and new society—was quietly shelved or reduced to the status of an ineffective dogma or even metaphor. … I trust it is becoming increasingly clear to people now that such a position simply won’t do. This isn’t what the four gospels are about. It’s actually closer to Gnosticism.

The second thing that Christians have done is to say, with the neo-Anabaptists, that the church must simply put its own house in order, keep its own nose clean, and live as a beacon of light, but without actually engaging with the world. It must construct a parallel society in which the kingdom values of Jesus are lived out for all to see. Now I’m all for the church cleaning up its act and shining like a light in the world. But the strong sectarian separation that all this implies seems to pay no attention to the great statements of Jesus’ cosmic lordship in the New Testament, not least the claim of Matthew 28 that Jesus already possesses all authority on earth as well as in heaven. It is always in danger of dualism, of cutting off the creational branch on which all Christian thinking ought to be sitting.

The third and fourth reactions among Christians, which are all too powerful today (particularly in the United States), have simply baptized the right-wing and left-wing politics of a deeply divided society and claimed this or that one as Christian, to be implemented and if possible exported. Listening to the sub-Christian language on display among those exultant at the killing of Osama bin Laden in the early summer of 2011 was an example of this right-wing tendency; anything that advances the worldview of Fox News is assumed to be basically Christian, wise, and automatically justified. But listening to many on the left, I have a similar problem. The left claims the high Christian and moral ground of a concern for the poor and the marginalized, but again this regularly parrots the elements of liberal modernism, not least its new sexual ethic, without any attempt to scale the true heights of the gospel vision in the New Testament (pp. 165, 166).

There’s no simple answer. Wright’s solution, in summary, is that we become people both of the kingdom and the cross. Again, Wright says:

Different Christians have found that they want to highlight one element or the other, whether the “kingdom,” to validate a contemporary social agenda (and to leave a question mark as to why the cross mattered at all), or the “cross,” to emphasize the mechanism by which God rescues sinners from this world and enables them to go to “heaven” (leaving a question mark as to why either Jesus or the evangelists would think it mattered that much to do all those healings, to walk on water, or to give such remarkable teaching) (p. 176).

So, what is the appropriate reaction to culture? How can Christians conduct themselves?

Cross and Kingdom

We react to culture by being people of the cross and people of the kingdom.

To be people of kingdom is to be people who join Jesus in his kingdom-bringing work for the world, striving for justice and mercy on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed, working for peace and the common good. To be people of the cross is to be people of deep and abiding faith, who humble ourselves, who follow our Savior, joining him in his suffering and in the new life that is to come.

What about you?

What is your response to the culture in which we’re living?

World Down Syndrome Day

world-down-syndrome-day

Today is World Down Syndrome Day. And, it’s caused me to reflect. I felt compelled to share what I’ve been wondering about.

We would all like to make God into our own image. Many have tried. But, despite our best efforts to put God in a box or to define him in terms that are palatable to our highly evolved sensibilities, he simply refuses to take on most of the labels we try to apply. God isn’t Republican or a Democrat. He’s not pro- or anti-gun control. He’s neither liberal nor conservative. He’s neither Catholic nor Protestant. He’s not a kindly, old grandpa. He’s not an angry, vengeful villain.

None of these popular labels stick. However, I know of one that does:

[biblegateway passage=”Psalm 139″ display=”God is pro-life”].

If you’re watching the news or spending any time on social media today, you’re probably going to run into any number of opposing perspectives about the pro-life, pro-choice debate. Some—on either side of the spectrum—may invoke God to make their argument. Some of us will jump on one bandwagon or the other and loudly make their perspective known to all of the people who would tune in. Others will become so disoriented by the louder opinions that they’ll remain quiet.

Dispite all the bluster, [biblegateway passage=”John 10:10″ display=”God remains committed to life”].

To complicate things for us, here in Indiana, the State Senate passed on a bill to our pro-life Governor that would ban abortions when there is a pre-term diagnosis of Down Syndrome. It’s caused quite a stir and everyone has an opinion. There’s no shortage of inflammatory rhetoric on both sides of the issue.

Without regard to the law, [biblegateway passage=”Romans 8:35-39″ display=”God remains firm in his love for us”].

You’ve probably heard claims that 90 percent of all babies with Downs are aborted. That figure has long been cited by pro-life groups as an attention-getting method. However, it’s not accurate: “Without selective abortion, the number of babies born with Down syndrome in recent years would have been about 30 percent higher than it actually has been,” (Amy Julia Becker). However, even at 30 percent, the number is way too high.

No matter the statistics, [biblegateway passage=”Jeremiah 31:3″ display=”God cares about each and every life”].

Ironically, most people’s perspectives and opinions are purely hypothetical. This is deeply troubling to me. I’ll venture a guess that most people who will go online today to give voice to their opinion have never loved or cared for someone with Down Syndrome. I’d imagine that most have never been told there’s something wrong with their baby during a prenatal ultrasound. Most have never had to make a gut-wrenching commitment to love a child that doesn’t have a perfectly clean bill of health.

Here’s where this gets personal for me. At 18-weeks gestation, our own son was diagnosed with a life-threatening birth defect. We were ushered down the back stairway of the OBGYN’s office and told to drive straight to the genetic counselor. We’ve been told my wife was carrying a baby who likely wouldn’t survive. We’ve waited for results, sure we were going to be told that the most compassionate choice we could make would be to end our son’s life. Thanks to God, we’ve been able to witness a miracle for 10 years. What would live have been like if we presumed he couldn’t have had a full life because of his special needs?

We’ve been committed to our son’s life; God has been even more committed to him.

Today, World Down Syndrome Day, try to quiet yourself for a while and consider your own life, the gift of life you’ve been given. Think about the people around you who have special needs. Aren’t their lives worth something? Can we learn about what life is really about by watching—better yet, befriending, caring for, protecting, and loving—them?

Thank God he’s pro-life.

Check out these videos. And, maybe consider sharing them today.

Unborn Lives Matter

baby holding adult hand

I had the honor of offering a prayer during the dedication ceremony for a new Life Centers location in Plainfield yesterday. And, tomorrow, I have the joy of celebrating my son’s tenth birthday. What do these events have to do with one another?

The common thread is my conviction that unborn lives matter.

My conviction isn’t abstract. It’s personal. Kelly was 18-weeks pregnant when we heard the dreadful words every parent fears: “I’m sorry. There’s something wrong with your baby.” In the span of 30 minutes, we went from excitedly anticipating the discovery of the gender of our first child to anxiously huddled in a genetic counselor’s office being told that our son had a slim chance of being compatible with life.

We prepared ourselves to be told that we had the choice to terminate the pregnancy, to avoid all the pain and difficulty that would certainly come our way. But we chose life.

The last decade has brought its share of hardship, fear, and doubt. However, it has also brought immeasurable blessing, laughter, joy, growth, and wonder. By God’s grace, here we are!

Why do unborn lives matter?

We live in a culture in which the short journey from the womb to the delivery room is all that separates life that doesn’t matter from life that does matter. Isn’t that madness?

There are a number of truths that underscore why unborn lives matter:

1. We are made in God’s image.

When God created the cosmos, he placed man and woman in it as his crowning achievement. He created us in his image and we are, therefore, different in essence from anything and everything else in the universe. We have intrinsic worth. Our value is not earned by virtue or maintained by our capacity to make a valuable contribution to society. It is invested in us by the mere fact of our existence. We reflect God’s capacity for rich relationships. We long to create and witness beauty. We yearn for knowledge and wisdom, for purpose, and for life.

Unborn lives matter because all human life bears God’s indelible mark.

2. God is involved in the details of conception and development.

Life is a miracle. I still find myself stunned, in awe of the fact that a man and a woman can create new life. It’s much, much more than a mere biological process. It’s wonder. Beauty. Art. And, God is involved in even the tiniest details. In fact, it is so wonderful, only poetry can come close to doing justice. [biblegateway passage=”Psalm 139:13-14″ display=”King David writes”]:

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well. 

Unborn lives matter because they are the special concern of God the Father.

3. Every human life has potential for good.

Did you know that over 57 million abortions have occurred in the US since abortion became legal in 1973? I often wonder about what those 57 million lives could have become. A little girl aborted in 1973 would be 42 years old right now, in the prime of her life. Might she have discovered the cure to cancer? Could she have been raising a few beautiful children? What if she was writing music or creating art to inspire and thrill the world? Could she have been leading a company? Might she have been holding elected office and helping to shape the laws of our nation?

Every human life has the potential for great good, to make the world a better place. The [biblegateway passage=”Ephesians 2:10″ display=”Apostle Paul”] says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Created for good works. Prepared in advance and known by God.

Unborn lives matter because of their positive potential.

4. How we treat the weak reveals the heart of our culture.

Do you want to know what is at the heart of a culture? Look at how it collectively treats the marginalized: the unborn, the sick, the elderly, the poor, the foreigners, and the imprisoned. Nothing is more revealing of the decay we see all around us than the legal holocaust that has been taking place since 1973. Do those sound like strong words? Do they startle you? They are. And, they should. They are true.

Unborn lives matter because they reveal the heart of our culture.

What about you?

For those who have had an abortion or who know someone who has: I pray you know that you’re not beyond the forgiveness of your Heavenly Father. He knows your past and your pain. He values you and he wants you to cling to him. Do you know him?

For all of us: Do you value life? Do your actions and attitudes reflect your answer to that question? What can you do, both now and in the future, to value life?

How to Kill a Culture of Violence

 

We live in a culture of violence.

The other night, for the very first time, we allowed our son to witness someone being murdered in cold blood.

It wasn’t intentional. Kelly and I were excited to introduce Owen to some of our most beloved Christmas movies. So, we sat down on the couch to watch Home Alone. We had forgotten over the years is that a mob murder scene plays a crucial role in the plot. As I fumbled in the dark for the remote so I could fast forward the scene, Kelly and I glanced at each other in alarm, shocked at the spectacle to which we had just exposed our innocent son.

You might think we’re overprotective. Maybe we are. But, in a world in which mass killings like San Bernardino happen on a weekly basis, aren’t we justified in being careful about what he sees?

The tragic events of this week have caused all of us to do some serious thinking about the violence we witness. There has been no shortage of discussion about gun control. The people on the left want to amend the Constitution, stemming the tide of violence by taking guns off the street. People on the right assure us that guns aren’t the problem. They go so far as to insinuate that the massacre might have been less bloody if more civilians on the scene had been armed. Both sides really only succeed in condemning those who don’t share their view. Religious people, no matter where they appear on the political spectrum, haggle over the root causes of the problem and wring their hands about what the future holds. Is radical Islam the problem? Are these isolated occurrences? Should we pray? Is that enough? How should we align ourselves politically? Can I find a verse in my Bible that connects all of this with the Second Coming? What can or should we do?

The truth is that nobody is really offering a good answer.

How do you kill a culture of violence?

It has to be stopped. And, although it isn’t as immediate as a Constitutional amendment, as black-and-white as more state laws, or as easy as washing our hands and blaming another group for the problems, we can each do our part to change culture. It isn’t going to happen on a public stage. It isn’t going to be glamorous. And, it’s certainly not going to be quick.

Here are three things we can each do to change our culture of violence from within.

Stop consuming violence

It astonishes me that there is so little conversation about the utterly violent nature of American culture. We purchase grossly violent video games for our children and then react in shock when teenagers play first-person shooter in real life. We pay $300 for the price of a ticket to watch our favorite football team beat the stuffing out of their rivals and gasp in horror when a violent player knocks the stuffing out of his girlfriend. We eagerly binge watch the most carnal, violent sexual acts and then reel back in disgust when a neighbor ends up being a monster who preys on innocent victims. The horrific examples can go on and on and on and on.

This is madness! It’s hypocrisy at its most appalling. It has to stop.

We must resolve to stop glorifying violence and consuming it until we’re stuffed. We have to stop inviting it into our homes and idolizing its most brazen purveyors. We have to determine to protect our hearts and the hearts of our children. Because, make no mistake, people become violent because they are nurtured to become violent.

Become and partner with people of peace

We must pursue peace. We must pray for it. We must work for it. (It can never be an either-or proposition.) It must begin with us, extend to our children, include the people with whom we partner, and pervade every area of our lives.

Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” ([biblegateway passage=”Matthew 5:9″]). 

Political philosophy, theological distinctions, culture, background, color, and socio-economic status are immaterial; we can work together if you’re a person of peace. We can take Jesus’ call to work for peace seriously and we can work together, in our neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, and communities to foster and protect peace.

Leverage the Gospel to bring about true change

As we proceed, we can never forget that the only force that can bring about true change is the Holy Spirit, working in individual hearts, by [biblegateway passage=”John 3:16-17″ display=”the Gospel of Jesus Christ”]. Without the Gospel, all other change is shallow, temporary, and tenuous at best. But, by God’s grace, hearts, homes, communities, nations, and the world can be truly and forever transformed.

What will you do?

Will you stop consuming violence? Will you partner actively with people of peace? Will you embody the Gospel? The only way to kill a culture of violence is to transform it from within.

Have You Prayed for a Terrorist Lately?

how-to-pray-for-terrorists

My family got into an interesting conversation on Thanksgiving in the light of the terrorist attacks in Paris. Yesterday’s San Bernardino massacre brought that conversation back to mind. The topic: What should the US do about the Islamic State?

I mostly listened during that conversation. When I did speak up (as ministers are wont to do) I shared about a provocative article I had recently read.

My point was that, as Christians, we ought to think carefully about the stance we take and that we ought to dedicate ourselves first to prayer. My sweet wife, who after nearly 20 years together has learned to call my bluff when I get a little too preachy, asked me if I had been praying for terrorists or if I was just being sanctimonious.

I hadn’t. I was.

In the aftermath of Paris and San Bernardino, I will begin. No more simply knowing what’s right and failing to do what’s right.

Prayer’s precedent

There is, after all, precedent for Christians assuming a prayerful role in the face of great violence. The book of Acts tells of a terrorist who dedicated himself to use whatever means necessary to stamp out the fledgling Church. The persecuted Church certainly knew and applied these words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven,” (Jesus, in [biblegateway passage=”Matthew 5:43-45″]).

Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Although the Bible doesn’t make this explicit, because they were taking their cues from Jesus, I believe the persecuted Christians prayed fervently for Saul of Tarsus, the terrorist who was gutting the Church in the name of God.

God [biblegateway passage=”1 Timothy 1:12-17″ display=”answered their prayers”] and turned that murderous zealot into the greatest church planter, theologian, and leader the Church has known in the last 2,000 years.

Is it possible that there’s another Saul of Tarsus who needs the prayers of the Church?

Have you prayed for a terrorist lately?

As my thoughts are becoming clearer on this issue, here are a number of the things I will be praying about. Will you join me in praying for these five things?

Pray for your heart

Begin here. It’s way too easy to give in to the anger and fear that terrorist acts have produced. And, if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves becoming hateful and bigoted. Pray for a heart that is sensitive enough to draw in sadness and pain and pump out faith, hope, love, and peace.

Pray for political leaders

We may disagree with our leaders. We might believe they’re too militant or too pacifistic, too interventionist or too isolationist, too sympathetic or not sympathetic enough, too concerned with retaining votes, or completely wrong-headed. No matter how we feel, it’s still our responsibility to pray for them. Pray for wisdom. Resolve. Strength. For wise advisers and for proper support. Pray that the God who gave them their authority would work through them.

Pray for the Gospel to advance

The only thing that can change the heart of a terrorist—of any sinner for that matter—is the transformative power of the Gospel of Jesus. Pray that the Gospel is preached powerfully.  Pray that its messengers are protected by God and favored by their hearers. Pray that the Holy Spirit invades hostile territory and does a work beyond anything we could ask or imagine.

Pray for the Church to shine

Whether it’s the faith of Christians facing persecution, the hospitality shown by Christians welcoming refugees, the ministry of believers in working for the good of their communities, or day-to-day conversations sprinkled with grace and truth, pray that the Church has an opportunity display God’s love in tangible, winsome, and effective ways.

Pray for God to receive glory

No matter how dark the situation, God’s glory has the power to drive it away. Pray for him to be seen, known, honored, and glorified in these dark times. One day, his glory will be known to every soul and every knee will bow.

What about you?

The news is bad. It’s getting worse. There’s only one solution: a massive renovation of the hearts of mankind. And, the road leading to that renovation is—and always has been—paved with the prayers of the saints.

What about you? Will you pray first? Will you keep praying?

Reflections on the RFRA Ruckus

reflections-rfra-ruckus

I know it’s been a few weeks since this issue took over the news cycle, social media, and the blogosphere. I’m tardy to the party. But, in contrast to virtually all of the loudest voices that have weighed in on the issue, perhaps that qualifies me to say something of substance.

Four things I believe

Here are a few of my own random reflections on the RFRA ruckus.

1. All the propaganda, fear tactics, and false logic—from all sides—are killing the conversation.

Enough already!

It doesn’t matter which side of the religious, social, or political spectrum on which we stand, we each have a choice. We can either buy into the rhetoric and demonize “those people” who don’t share our favored philosophy, or we can listen, learn, discover common ground on which to stand, and then engage in constructive conversation.

Even if we have to agree to disagree, isn’t this posture preferable to what we’ve all been experiencing?

The moment we decide to dig a trench, make allies with any like-minded people we can find, and begin to hurl grenades at the other side, all progress ends.

And, as a Christian who understands my role on this earth as an agent of God’s redemptive plan for his creation, I simply cannot choose the satisfaction of merely being right over the unique opportunity to be salt and light to the people around me, people who are all dearly loved by their Creator.

2. Christians must become better at communicating what we’re for than what we’re against.

Pop quiz. You don’t need anyone to remind you what Christians are against. What are we for?

Exactly.

Where are the voices painting a compelling, biblical picture of the Imago Dei, the beautiful, complementary design of men and women, the covenental nature of marriage, the wondrous mysteries of married sex, the high and precious calling of parenting, and the latent redemptive power that the elevation of the institution of marriage would have upon our fractured and desperate culture?

As a Christian, I am convinced we need to change the narrative. We must tell such an evocative story—and live such a faithful example of that story—that we earn a hearing in the broader culture. There’s no reason to state what we’re against until we have expressed what we are for.

3. Christians must decide if we’d rather model our actions and words after Jesus or the Pharisees.

It should be no surprise, but Jesus perfectly embodied grace and truth.

Jesus continually courted scandal by his willing association with any and all of the notorious sinners who came across his path. A quick glance at the Gospels makes this abundantly clear. From partying with embezzlers, to touching the diseased, to conversing with adulteresses, Jesus was perpetually in proximity to people who were sinful and lost. This is vital: while Jesus faithfully demonstrated love to each and every one, he never missed an opportunity to challenge them to move beyond their sin and into his plan for them. The love he demonstrated and the truth he communicated, together, were transformative.

On the other hand, Jesus also spent a lot of time with the proper, righteous, upstanding members of his society. And, lest we fool ourselves, Jesus was dead set against allowing them to retain their smug, self-appointed position of religious superiority. He didn’t commend them for being against all the right social ills. He didn’t urge them on in their hypocritical bluster. He didn’t allow them to comfortably get by with the stereotypes they cast on sinners. He didn’t mince words. His judgment was clear.

Christians must make better decisions with regard to our approach. We must look more like Jesus—loving all and speaking God’s truth in love—than the pharisees—failing to see the sin in which they themselves were dwelling as a result of their own ill-conceived attempts to be perceived as morally superior.

4. The Church’s pursuit of political power is an adventure in missing the point.

Too often, it appears as if Christians believe that our hope is that we could change the bad laws, get the right politicians in office, or gain a greater amount political influence. That becomes all too clear in the midst of the RFRA ruckus that took place in Indiana this March.

Let’s just be clear on this point: the right politicians, in the right offices, creating the right laws is not the hope of the world.

The hope of the world is the Gospel of Jesus: the message that God became human, entered into the muck and mire of this sinful world, took on the worst it had to offer, and triumphed over sin and death. And, in so doing, he paved the way for all of us to be reunited with our Creator.

That is the hope of the world.

Where do we go from here?

If you’re a Christian and you’re reading this blog, I hope that you understand that the onus is on us. It’s up to us to form genuine, redemptive relationships with the very people we’re so quick to demonize. It’s up to us and our churches to hold high the transformative truth of the Gospel. It’s up to us to conduct our own lives with so much tangible grace and truth that the world is changed everywhere we go. It’s up to our families to exemplify the kind of faithfulness and love that God intended. And, it’s up to us to rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit—not any secular, para-church, or political institution—to produce the kind of heaven-on-earth world in which all of humanity would flourish.