Friday, August 6, 2010

Living, Enduring

Love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1.22-23)

Constitutional Divides

There is at present in the US Supreme Court a vast Constitutional divide. Justices Scalia and Thomas stand at the conservative extreme advocating an interpretive approach commonly referred to as originalism. At the consistently liberal extreme, Justices Ginsberg and Breyer assess constitutionality in terms of pragmatism, with the remaining five panelists oscillating (to a predictable degree) between the two schools of thought. Originalism regards the US Constitution as inflexible, drawing its doctrine directly from what it literally says or inferring meaning through the lenses of its originators. Pragmatism is the opposite. It sees the Constitution as a “living” document that shifts in parallel to the nation’s progress. One shudders to imagine the Founders meant the Court to become the politically polarized body it is. Based on what we find in the Constitution, it appears they didn't. Nothing in the document definitively indicates either methodology is correct.

A very similar constitutional divide fractures the Church, with conservatives embracing the equivalent of originalism and progressives touting their version of pragmatism. The interpretive tug-of-war between them eclipses the document they’re wrestling with—God’s Word. Disagreements about how it’s to be treated confound current understanding of its governance in our lives. Is the Bible like the Creator Who speaks through it—immutable, immune to human time and advancement, and impervious to challenges? Or is it a living thing designed to shift and mature in keeping with humanity’s progress? Did God intend it to become the polarizing entity that currently paralyzes the Church? Before shuddering to consider this, we’re wise to search its pages for answers, because unlike the Constitution, the Bible provides profound instruction about how it must be approached and interpreted.

C—All of the Above

Based on what God’s Word says about itself, arguing its virtue as a volume of timeless precedents or its value in terms of timely relevance is superfluous. The answer isn’t A or B. It’s C—all of the above. “Not so!” Scriptural originalists will say. “What God says in the Old Testament remains in effect for us. What He inspires the Apostles to write applies across-the-board to us.” They’ll turn to Christ’s statement in Matthew 5.18: “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the Law, until everything is accomplished.” They’ll quote Isaiah 40.7: “The word of our God stands forever.”

Yes, these texts are accurately cited. But they’re also incorrectly couched. Jesus prefaces His teaching with this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (v17) The Old Testament’s purpose culminates when Calvary opens free access for all to God’s grace. The world and heaven defined by the Law and Prophets cease to exist. And Peter quotes Isaiah to debunk what many of his readers presumed—and many continue to presume—it to say. In 1 Peter 1.23-25 he writes: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For [quoting Isaiah], ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.’ And this is the word that was preached to you.” God’s Word is living and enduring—timely and timeless, flexible and firm, i.e., all of the above. It lives in the present to ensure its durability over time. Thus we approach it pragmatically, weighing its contents in context with what we know and preceding generations did not. At the same time, we must trust its Author’s original intentions were sound and the principles He set down long ago hold true for all time. So how do we solve these internal contradictions? We dig below “what” to uncover “why.”

From the Heart

The Apostles took a radical position on Scripture that shocked conservatives of their day. They emphasized it should be lived, not merely learned. “The word of God is living and active,” Hebrews 4.12 tells us. “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” God’s Word reaches the heart, the innermost being where motives and desires abide. It separates fickle thoughts and emotions from enduring truth. That’s what the Apostles were getting at. Our thoughts and opinions will change over time. Today’s feelings won’t be the same tomorrow. If we get hung up on what we’ve learned without letting it come alive in us, we bury God’s Word in the past, ruining its relevance to our lives and times. A Word that isn’t alive in us will not endure.

Peter’s instruction on God’s Word is a sub-bullet to a bigger point. “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth, so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart,” he writes. (v22) We activate God’s Word in our lives to do what’s right. We don’t abuse it to prove we’re right. That’s dead thinking—mortal imposition on immortal truth. Peter says God’s Word plants in us “imperishable seed.” It circumvents intellectual pride and emotional fear to penetrate our hearts. Love blossoming in the depths of our beings overtakes compulsions to treat Scripture like a high school debate topic. We can learn it word-for-word. But until we live it, we’re playing mind games, entertaining idle fascinations. The living, enduring Word is evidenced by deep love planted in our hearts.

A truly living, enduring Word will pierce our hearts, bypassing our intellectual vanity and emotional fears. It will sow imperishable seeds of love in our beings.

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.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Forcing Love to Fail

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mark 10.21-22)

Sad Endings

Remember Gone With the Wind? Scarlett O’Hara nurses a teenage crush on the blandly vanilla Ashley Wilkes through America’s bloodiest war, the fall of the South, and three marriages. Her heart’s so fixated on a dream conjured without any knowledge of life that life passes her by. She rejects the one man with enough experience and wisdom to love her and there she is, putting off any thought of what she’s lost until tomorrow. The ending isn’t really tragic. It’s sad. Why can’t she let go her naïve nonsense and open up to Rhett’s love? Tomorrow will be no different. She’ll still be unhappy and unfulfilled.

Although Mark condenses the story of the rich young man to five verses, it follows the same arc. The young man possesses every earthly comfort and sets his mind on the one thing that eludes him. When Jesus comes to town, he rushes to ask how he can gain eternal life. To the casual listener, it’s a noble question. But Jesus sees through it. The man’s obsessed with an ideal born of selfish desire. “Jesus looked at him and loved him,” Mark writes. (Emphasis added.) In his compassion, Christ recognizes the man needs more than a guarantee of eternal bliss. He has to learn how to live—to find joy in loving and giving, and, most of all, to bankrupt assets that define him so he can be loved as he truly is. “Get rid of everything,” Jesus says. “Follow Me.” Like Scarlett, the man can’t let go and open up to Christ’s love. His story ends on a similarly sorry note: “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Mark 10.22)

How many people are destined for sad endings? How many cling to immature desires that block their ability to open their hearts to Christ’s magnificent love? How many of us rely on Christ’s companionship and care while nursing fantasies and fears that blind us to the fullness of His love? Surely we’re aware we push Him aside when these feelings crop up. Do we put off dealing with them until tomorrow? Both Scarlett and the rich young man teach us until we address our harmful obsessions, we'll still be unhappy and unfulfilled.

It’s Too Late

“Love never fails,” Paul famously writes in 1 Corinthians 13.8. His confidence in its power bursts forth in Romans 8.38-39: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Notice he covers every imaginable impediment to God’s love, save one: us. We’re all that stands between God’s extravagant love and us.

Knowing God loves us is like knowing the sky is blue. It’s a phenomenon we accept at face value. Letting Him love us is another thing. That asks a lot of us—namely, dismissing our concocted reasons why He can’t love us. And rather than dig into that, we often fall back on unworthiness. “I don’t deserve such love,” we say. But Romans 5.8 debunks our pretense by conceding the point: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s too late for us to think we don’t qualify for God’s love. The work’s been done. He opened His arms of love to us because we’re unworthy. So we might as well come clean and admit why we force love to fail. What’s jamming our hearts’ doors so we can’t allow the entirety of His love in?

Christ’s Look of Love

That opens a can of too many worms to list. Still, if we examine them closely, I believe we’ll find they come from the same source: resentments for past hurts and disappointments. They summon doubts about God’s love that inspire all sorts of “ifs” “ands” and “buts.” If God loves me, why would He…? And why should I accept His love, when…? But how can I trust Him after I’ve been treated so…? Letting God love us entails serious risk on our part. That’s why so many of us hang on to vain ideals and imaginations instead of letting them go. Like the rich young man, we walk away, choosing our notions over clearing our hearts of impediments that force love’s failure. And there are just as many of us who, like Scarlett, say “yes” to One Who pledges His undying love for us, only to reject or diminish it with dreams of how much happier we’d be had things gone differently.

Until we’re rid of resentments and doubts about God’s love, they will define us like the young man’s riches defined him. The saddest part of his story emerges in his being remembered for what he lacked, not what he had. Jesus looked at him and loved him. We can’t doubt the young man saw the compassion in Christ’s eyes. (It was so obvious Mark made a point of noting it.) Yet he lacked the willpower to let everything else go and make room for God’s love. Christ’s look of love is trained on each of us. We see it. It’s impossible to miss. It pierces our transparent excuses and emotions. And as He looks at us with love so powerful that nothing or no one can keep us from it, Christ entreats us: “Get rid of everything that’s blocking my love. Then come, follow me.”

Removing resentment and doubt about God’s love is the only way we can experience its extravagance. Hanging on to them forces love to fail.