Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Gentleness of Hope

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. ~ 1 Peter 3:13-17
When reading through scripture it is interesting that sometimes certain phrases might as well be in bold because they jump out at you so distinctly. The problem with that is sometimes those words that may have been very encouraging to us in a time of trouble may color our view of an entire passage of scripture. In the passage above the general mood that I have been sensing in modern evangelical circles is that the words slandered, reviled, and put to shame have begun to carry too much weight in this passage. I write as a Christian in America in 2014 and while the verse above may have some individual applications to persons who have come across persecution within their work, school, or community, there is not the widespread persecution of Christians that is in the mind of Peter when he was writing this. 

If you read the book of 1 Peter as a whole much of it deals with how we are to deal with persecution because he is dealing with a group of people who are being significantly persecuted. In a country where it is nearly impossible for me to leave my home without passing a house of Christian worship I have a hard time buying into the idea that we, as Christians, are a persecuted people within this nation. Since Peter is writing to a persecuted group of believers, and I don't buy into our persecution, does that mean that I don't think that this passage and most of this letter (and large portions of the New Testament) are irrelevant to us? Hardly, but I do think that we should potentially be giving our attention more to other portions of the text.

Even for those who are being written to in this letter as originally intended, the subject of persecution is not the main thrust, but just the context that they were living in. The subject is closer to that of personal holiness, and the way in which we live out our lives before the unbelieving world. This is not a letter to the unbeliever who will be put to shame for their treatment of God's people, but a letter to God's people with the admission that they will see mistreatment, and with instruction on how to live their lives in the midst of persecution. If we live in a nation today of relatively little persecution, how much more of the positive instruction of this passage should we take to heart. If we are to give a reason for the hope that is in us with gentleness and respect even to those who are persecuting us, with how much more grace and understanding should we act when we are merely dealing with people who disagree with us. When it speaks in verse 17 of suffering for good rather than evil, I think that it puts into perspective some of the perceived persecution in our culture. In many cases we are not suffering for standing by the word of God, but suffering for the very lack of gentleness and respect that this passage calls us to. In the same vein, when we talk about the wickedness of homosexuality or abortion, we are not testifying to the hope that we find in Christ, we are actually testifying to a hope in legalism, that in abstaining from those things (and other pet sins of the day) we have been saved. By dealing harshly with the world, by expecting them to live up to a biblical standard of righteousness, we are in a way proclaiming a salvation other than the one offered in Christ.

There is a false dichotomy that we have been presented with today. There are those on one side of these issues that would have us conform to the standards of the world in the name of love and acceptance. There are others who would have us speak out in condemnation of the wickedness of the world in the name of truth and standing beside the word of God. Both of these have the appearance of wisdom, but fall short of what we have been called to. In 1 Peter 1:14 we are called to be obedient, and to not be "conformed to our former ignorance", so the idea of setting aside our obedience to God's word, and setting our standards based on those of the world is not something that we have been called to. The term used, "former ignorance", on the other hand does point to an enlightenment that has not been given to the world as a whole. That light that we have been given is the Holy Spirit, and if we can scarcely find it within ourselves to be obedient even with the indwelling Spirit, how can we expect the world which lacks the Spirit to obey or honor the things of God. Much of this letter is a call to personal holiness, so we are to hold the word of God in very high regard, but in relation to ourselves first, and in ministering to our brothers and sisters second, but as it relates to the world much of what we must realize is that it is a fallen one, and expecting for it to act otherwise is futile.

How do we interact with this world then, if we should not conform to their ways, and they certainly will not conform to ours? This passage would seem to say that we should merely do good, what reason do people have to persecute us if we are feeding the hungry, what reason do people have to hate us if we are clothing and sheltering the poor, and if they decide that they do not need a reason we are told that we will be blessed in that as well. Those will be the days when we are truly being persecuted, when we are doing the great acts of compassion that we are called to, and the culture that surrounds us hates each of us not only for who we are, but chiefly for who we serve. In that time the only thing that we will have to offer is really the only thing of worth we had to give in the first place. They may ask us how we can stand in the face of hatred and not be shaken, and the answer to that question is the reason for the hope that is in us... Jesus Christ. There are those who will witness the work of God and be stirred by the Spirit in this very act, and there are some who will not. Do good today, with our freedom, and let God work. Do good on that day, in our affliction, and let God work. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Serpent out of the Corn Field

There was an article posted over on the SB Nation MLB page the other day that was criticizing the movie Field of Dreams as the worst baseball movie ever just based on it not dealing with the question of race in the first several decades of the existence of professional baseball. I have long had on the back burner a post I would like to write about how our agendas color the way we see everything (and this would be a good example), but it wasn't that topic that has been stirring in my mind after reading the article. In truth it was just a small throwaway line in the article that sparked my mind. There is a line in the movie where James Earl Jones has a monologue where he talks about what will be essentially a religious pilgrimage for people to this baseball (corn)field in Iowa.
"They'll watch the game, and it will be as if they have knelt in front of a faith healer, or dipped themselves in magic waters where a saint once rose like a serpent and cast benedictions to the wind like peach petals."
We have a depiction here of the healing nature of the purity of the game that will seemingly make us whole again. It's a nice thought, and I think that having played and followed baseball for most of my formative years, and having enough distance between my playing days and now to add a sheen of nostalgia to them, salvation through baseball is still a tempting thought sometimes. The line that followed shaped my thoughts for a couple days following as the author, just as an aside, questions the image of the saint as serpent and jokes about them generally "working for opposite sides". The joke (and a google search) brought me back to a passage of scripture that is often overshadowed by the one that immediately follows it, and that would be John 3:14-15.
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
If it is odd that the image of a serpent and saint would be combined out of the mouth of James Earl Jones, consider me even more surprised that the image of serpent and savior would come out of the mouth of Jesus himself. Given the reference that Jesus is pulling from it is more than a little likely that the image in the movie is borrowing from scripture as well because the picture that Jesus is using of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness fits perfectly into healing nature that the movie is trying to convey about baseball. Jesus is referencing Numbers 21:9 where the people of Israel are once again grumbling about the life they are leading wandering in the wilderness after they have delivered out of slavery in Egypt. After this grumbling reaches the ears of God he sends venomous snakes among them, and many people die, and many more have been bit and are dying. The people call out to Moses to intercede on their behalf, to plead with God to take away these serpents. The response of the Lord is to instruct Moses to make an image of the serpent, and to place it on a pole for the people to see. Moses constructs a bronze serpent and lifts it up on a pole so that the people of Israel, all those who are poisoned and dying can gaze upon it, and when they do they are healed.

The author was correct in his thinking that, on the whole, serpents are associated with the the darkness and wickedness of the world, but in this one very specific case a serpent was the source of healing and salvation for God's people. Immediately prior to Jesus talking about God "so loving the world", he is appropriating the image of this serpent, the one that Moses lifted up for the healing and salvation of the young nation of Israel. Whenever he says that whoever believes in this Son who has been given will not perish, he is doing so in the light of the serpent that has been lifted up. If the serpent had not been lifted up on that day on the wilderness then the people would have perished, and the story may have ended there. In comparing himself to this image of the serpent Jesus is identifying something that dwelling in the body of every person alive, which is much more deadly than venom, and is pointing at himself as the source for not just temporary healing, but an eternal deliverance from death itself. Sin has poisoned us all, but when we look on the Son who has been lifted up he offers healing for every one of us. When the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness the people of Israel were healed, now that the Son has been lifted up we have been given this;
"He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." ~ Revelation 21:4

Friday, December 13, 2013

Why Should I Forgive?

I came across a blog post recently about the topic of forgiveness and it struck me in a way that I didn't really expect. The topic was in regards to some specific offense that someone had offered an apology to, but had forgiveness for this offense withheld by the offended party, a confessed Christian. I will admit that I had almost zero interest in the case in particular, but the advice offered stirred something in me. 

The common advice for an unforgiving heart anymore is this, "you need to forgive that person, do you know what you are doing to yourself emotionally, spiritually, even physically by holding this grudge". That is all fine and good, not terrible practical advice. The problem being that from a Christian perspective (and this was a Christian blog) this completely misses the point of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not chiefly for the offended, but for the offender, and when we miss that we miss a vital piece of the gospel. Jesus did not come to die for us because the Father was on the throne chomping on antacids and taking blood pressure medication. God saw fit to lower himself to live this messy human life, and die a humiliating death for the benefit of the offenders. 

If your psychiatrist tells you that you need to come to a place of forgiveness or it might kill you, that is probably some good practical advice, but if your pastor were to give you the same advice I think that you should expect something more. The church, probably even more than politicians, get stuck with the charge of being hypocritical.  This is something that we should expect, to a certain degree we should even wear it as a badge of honor because being called out for hypocrisy is also a recognition that we stand for something. How does it look for someone who claims that God died in order to have mercy on his beloved creation to harbor unforgiveness themselves? It looks like hypocrisy because that's exactly what it is, and scripture backs it up (see Matthew 18:21-35). 

I am not saying this as a legalist, telling people that they had better fall in line and forgive, but I am asking that we take a look at the life that we are living, and what message our unforgiveness sends to the world around us. We have in the ability to offer forgiveness to those who have offended against us the privilege to display to them the image of who God truly is. We are able to empty ourselves of our pride, and our own entitlement, and let the person know that we love them enough to overlook this offense. In a way or ability to give forgiveness introduces others to the one who ultimately offers forgiveness. The love that we give in this act displays the one who loves us enough to suffer and die in our place. That is a worthy reason to forgive. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

An Aquatic Mammal Out of Water

One of the first books that I ever truly fell in love with was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and beyond the answer to life, the universe and everything that has passed into pop culture since (42!) one of the images that most stuck with me from this (inappropriately titled trilogy) series of books was that of the missile who quite improbably transformed into a whale miles above the surface of an alien planet. There is an inner monologue that follows as this whale starts to discover the simple facts about who he is, and the most basic information about the world around him. He discovers his tail. He discovers the air that is rushing past him, He also discovers the large mass that is coming closer and closer all the time. He decided to call it the ground. Just as he had discovered the most rudimentary aspects of the world around him and who he was, it was all over as he met his new friend the ground...

In a way, that is what I am planning on having this blog be all about. I am the whale in this piece, but I have yet to meet the ground, so I am in the process of discovering who I am and what the world around me is all about. It may seem odd to name what I suspect will be a largely Christian blog for, and open a blog with, the thoughts of a self described "radical atheist", but the journey of this whale in a way is the journey of us all. I am not going to have life completely figured out when I finally crash into the surface of this alien planet, but I hope to have the wonder and enthusiasm for the world that I find myself in as long as I am rushing through the air.

This life may end in pain, but if there can be a world where a missile can spontaneously become a whale... or a bowl of petunias, would it be such a miracle if I turned out to be more than just a bunch of splattered whale meat on the surface of Magrathea?