Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Out of the Box

Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. (Acts 12.7)

Defining the Box

My job as a marketing creative director places me in client input meetings that go something like this. The client details the project’s scope and objectives. Our team probes a bit deeper into the audience’s demographics and attitudes, deftly attempting to get a sense of what will appeal to it, as well as the executives who will be involved in the program we’ve been asked to design. Many clients are very clear about their expectations. Equally often they’ll say, “We’re looking for your best out-of-the-box thinking.” “The box,” as anyone conversant in corporate-speak knows, is a euphemism for cultural norms. It holds everything that’s been sanctioned and done well up to now. Staying in the box is generally safest because it minimizes risk. Yet it’s also a career-limiting strategy, since it portrays a lack of self-confidence and vision. The higher one climbs the more intensely one searches for out-of-the-box ideas to drive success and growth.

The same dynamic applies to believers. Some stay safely within culturally defined boundaries of faith, while others push to achieve greater heights in Christian experience. Either way, defining the box is an illuminating exercise. We must carefully examine conventional thinking about faith and discipleship around us rather than arbitrarily settling into it. If it doesn’t challenge our trust in God and obedience to Christ—if it asks no more than we’d naturally achieve without belief—our box is too narrow and restrictive. It’s here that the corporate analogy breaks down, because restraints endanger faith. Following Jesus is by its very nature living out-of-the-box. Safety inside the box is an illusion.

Better, Bigger Things

Acts 12 reports a time of intense persecution for the Church. Its phenomenal growth and popularity have rocked the religious establishment. The Jews urge King Herod to do something. He executes James, one of the original disciples, and when that pleases the traditionalists, he arrests Peter during Passover. The king intends to bind him over for public trial after the holiday. The situation is eerily similar to the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus—also a Passover event. Since Herod’s conspiracy with the Jewish authorities didn’t work out like they hoped in Christ’s case, he takes extra precaution. He shoves Peter into the deepest, narrowest box he has, a cell buried far inside the local prison. He puts Peter in the custody of 16 guards, places sentries at the cell entrance, and shackles him to two soldiers. Jesus may have mysteriously escaped the tomb, but this one’s not going anywhere.

Let’s look at this for a moment, because Herod’s a wily politician. The resurgence of anti-Christian protest places him in a precarious position. He has to placate the religious right, whose hatred and blood-thirst exposes its fear of Christ’s followers. Since Pentecost, this minor sect has evolved into a major movement. Churches are forming in nearly every major city in the Empire. Gentiles—some of them high-ranking Romans—are converting. All Christians revere Peter as their leader. It’s a cunning maneuver on Herod’s part to imprison him for public trial after Passover. Provincial Jews who might be counted on to bolster outcry against Peter will have left Jerusalem. This also gives the Apostles time to organize a sizable, vocal minority to attend the hearing. Arresting the preacher looks good to the Temple establishment while it also protects him from assassination attempts and religious actions like the recent stoning of Stephen.

Locking Peter in a tight box seems like the safest, sanest way to go. But our logic is anathema to God. It’s dangerous to keep Peter off the streets for his safety. He’s needed out of the box, where he can lead and minister to the Church. Balancing the crowd at his trial isn’t an issue either, since there will be no trial. There’s no point in Herod’s scheme to avoid the errors that turned Christ’s unjust execution into a cause célèbre sweeping the Empire. (The king’s political savvy will soon do him in. He falls dead while accepting acclaim as a god for brokering peace in a rebellious province.) All the reasons in favor of boxing Peter in are for naught. God has better, bigger things in mind. As always, He’s thinking out of the box. He dispatches an angel to Peter. “Quick, get up!” the angel says. When Peter stands, the chains cuffing him to his keepers come loose. The angel orders him to dress and together they walk out of his cell unopposed. The sentries remain oblivious while they pass. When they reach the prison’s iron gate, it swings open by itself.

First We Stand

The world is full of Christians—practicing and lapsed—boxed in by logical schemes and cultural fences purportedly devised for their safety. Untold thousands are chained to erroneous doctrines alleging to protect them from death and destruction. Would-be gay believers are shackled to ironclad ideologies that prevent them from honestly pursuing their faith. Would-be women priests and pastors are confined in places too narrow for them to serve God’s people with their enormous gifts. Would-be apostles and leaders languish in institutions that sequester them from ministries they’re called to perform. These hindrances are forged from manmade reasoning intent on safeguarding those they encumber as well as the Church’s stability. But they’re dangerous to our faith. Our safety and the Body of Christ’s wellbeing are found out of the box.

God has better, bigger things in mind for us. His message is “Quick, get up!” There’s no need to wait for a public trial; there will be none. It’s unnecessary to balance opinion and outcry in our favor; human approval is irrelevant. The schemes and savvy of kings are pointless; their days are numbered. When we respond by faith as He urges us to stand, our chains will fall. We will walk out of the box unopposed because, like Peter, our passage won’t be detected until we’re free. Massive gates erected to hold us back will open by themselves. Expecting these barriers to vanish before we rise in obedience to God gets it backwards. First we stand. Then they fall.

Doctrines and barriers allegedly constructed for our safety can become restraints to pursuing our faith. Rather than languish in chains, God calls us to stand. When we obey, shackles fall and doors open.


Sherry Peyton said...

An excellent post Tim. An unexamined faith is a dead one for sure. The bible is replete it seems to me, from Abraham on down with instances of "thinking outside the box." Paul urged new thinking as regards the Gentiles. And our churches are at their best when they continually revisit old doctrines and dogma. Surely the Spirit draws us to do this as it works to improve our understanding of ultimate truth. Great post!

Tim said...

Surely the Spirit draws us to do this as it works to improve our understanding of ultimate truth.

Beautifully said, Sherry. Doctrines and dogmas founded on exclusion, unlearned traditions, and superstition ensconce us in darkness. Their impenetrability prevents the light of truth from breaking through.

I think many of us wrongly apply the concept of a timeless God to human understanding of His Word. He does not change, but we sure do! What's more, as He inspired the writings we look to for guidance, He knew we would change. Our knowledge of the world and human condition would grow more enlightened. And it's foolish to believe He expects us to hold slavishly to antiquated teaching whose time has passed.

The Bible is a book for the ages. It's intended to be read and understood differently over time, which is what makes it true. Our doctrines should work the same way, and we should trust divine counsel about how to re-think (or annul) them in response to what the Spirit is saying "to the churches" at this moment in time.

Fear of error leads to fear of change, but both of reflect the notion out-of-the-box thinking is left completely up to us. And it's not. Jesus promised "the Spirit will guide you into all truth." We should trust that promise and allow ourselves to be led.

Thanks for this great insight--I sense another post on this topic in the works!

Many blessings and much love,

genevieve said...

Tim, LGBT people are ouside the box and many denominations are being affected by it. At least there's some healthy debate.

Coming out as a transgender person made me look deeper into the scriptures. What's conventionional may not always be the way to go.

Also God has more for us. Living in a box is boring and stunting.

Tim said...

Genevieve, you've been much in my thoughts and prayers lately--it's such a joy to hear from you!

Yes, you're so right. GLBT people--and believers in particular--must live outside the box. That's why it's such a comfort when we discover God's Word speaks to us where we are, and His Spirit finds us wherever we may be. And that's how I truly believe we can find our way out of the boxes society and religious want to force us into. Through grace, we come into our own as people and followers of Christ!

Thanks so much for your thoughts here. They lift my soul!