Sunday, July 26, 2015

The "ambassador" model of evangelism

We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:20)
We usually think about evangelism in terms of "witnessing", and with good reason: Christ appointed his apostles as his witnesses, and we carry on their work. Witnesses are people who can personally guarantee the truth of what they report: they discuss what they see or hear, what they know. When we hear of witnessing, we often think in terms of testimony and court arguments. This has often been the case for Christians, as our beliefs are at times persecuted by law.

Paul gives us a second way to look at the same job of being Christ's messengers: we are ambassadors. An ambassador is a foreigner. We are called to picture ourselves as foreigners even in our own culture. That's true enough, as we have different views on everything from sexual integrity to self-control to how to treat our enemies. Ambassadors -- and foreigners in general -- stand out for their differences. They don't fit in. They eat differently, speak differently, dress differently, have different custom and different habits. And yet they are not embarrassed by any of that: they are true to the country in which they are citizens.

The ambassador's job is to represent the ruler who sent them. They speak on his behalf, representing his interests and not their own. Usually ambassadors are sent to make peace or keep peace. It can lead to different conversations than the "witnessing" model of evangelism. Both are the good news of Christ.

Paul focuses us on the message with which we have been sent:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Why Holiness is an important idea

If we discard the idea of the holy, there is nothing left but the secular. Without a sense of the holy, a church has nothing left but the worldly. It may be earnest, or academic, or bureaucratic, or intense, or moralistic -- but it has lost touch with God. (Even theology can lose touch with God. If you don't believe me, read some theology books.) A consumer-model church, a coffeeshop church, a browbeater church, an academic church -- all are missing holiness. They may also be missing leadership with authority, or discipleship, or fellowship, or the kind of belonging that builds an attachment. 

Holiness is a spark of glory, where we recognize divine life: that it is beautiful and pure, powerful and good. Holiness is what makes us understand that God is worthy to receive honor. Without holiness, the idea of God has no attraction -- what does God have that the world does not, if God is not holy? It is holiness, after all, which is is the the soul's desire: the genuine article of holiness, where our souls are like the still water, or a kindled flame, or a field containing a hidden treasure.  

Some things are related to holiness: reverence, and respect, and honor. These are produced by recognizing the holy or the worthy; without that, there can only be counterfeits of reverence and honor and respect. Holiness inspires reverence; when the real thing is found then its counterfeits evaporate like a child's footprints on a sidewalk in August. 

And holiness goes beyond duty: it shows that an act of kindness is a window of divine grace. Holiness is needed for morality to transcend mere obligation. "Holiness" is, after all, the part that transcends. Worldly goodness never really soars, as it denies there is anything beyond, to which we might reach. So often the idea of "holy", in art, is shown with wings. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Footsteps of God

It was an ancient teaching in Israel, that we are to walk after God -- that is, follow him; the law and the covenants were portrayed as walking after God. Jesus used the same image when he invited his disciples to follow him. Acts of compassion and kindness were seen as walking after God because of the Torah's record of God doing many such acts. Following in God's footsteps is the natural outcome of believing that he is good, and that his way is good.

"Walking with God" had references earlier in the Bible than the law and the covenants. If we look earlier still, we go back to hearing God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening -- and this time we are following instead of running the other way. Fellowship with God is restored. In walking with God, and following his footsteps, we go back to what we were meant to be doing.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

On earth as in heaven

We Christians pray it daily, for God's will to be done on earth as in heaven. The connection between earth and heaven is seen many times in the Scriptures, in different images. In the letter to the Hebrews, we read about priests at the earthly tabernacle:
They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and a shadow of what is in heaven. That is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: 'See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.' (Hebrews 8:5, which in turn cites Exodus 25:40)
There are a number of places in Exodus where it is written that the earthly sanctuary and contents were on a pattern laid out by God, to be like heaven (Exodus 25:9, 25:40, 26:30, 27:8).

That section of Exodus is best known for God's meeting with Moses on Sinai. And God's meeting with Moses on Sinai is best remembered for the Ten Commandments. The pattern shown on the mountain also seems to be part of the meeting on Sinai. If the Tabernacle is the embodiment of the beauty and glory of God, the place of the Divine Presence on earth, then the Ten Commandments are the parallel to that in creating a people who embody the beauty and glory of God, and God's will on earth: a people that does not lie, or steal, or murder, or break marriage vows, or scheme after their neighbor's things, a people that crowns their work with a day of blessing and rest that recaptures paradise on earth. The beauty and holiness of the tabernacle is meant to be woven also into our lives. The Commandments were not presented as dry duties; they were presented alongside news of expert workmen building items of stunning beauty. "On earth as in heaven" is a challenge to each generation. May we gain an understanding of the beauty of what we are called to build.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Resisting Hate-bait: Guarding against the tendency to dehumanize "the enemy"

I've seen it -- and have been appalled by it -- in political rhetoric, where opponents are said to "slither" (snakes aren't human, and are venomous into the bargain), or speakers to opponents' groups are portrayed as "throwing red meat" (as if to dangerous animals, again: not human, and dangerous). I've seen it in certain groups' rhetoric against Jews, teaching their children to regard them as "pigs" (again not human, and filthy). It's interesting that the animals to which "the enemy" is compared tend to be cold-blooded, or dangerous, or filthy. Not every animal comparison is meant as an insult; someone might be compared to an animal that is majestic or loyal or cute with no insult intended. But if the comparison is to an animal perceived as ugly, stupid, dangerous, or dirty, it is likely that the comparison is intended to dehumanize.

Why dehumanize the enemy? In the political realm it's not just cruelty, it's strategy for marginalizing individuals or groups. Animals aren't smart or rational enough to have considered opinions; they don't deserve the dignity of conversation. You don't have to justify why you won't listen to an animal. It's a waste of time, and dangerous, too. You don't have to justify the fact that animals don't have rights. And, more darkly, you don't have to justify killing animals; they aren't human. That has happened now and then in human history. And it begins with treating people like dangerous, stupid, or dirty animals.

Here I want to talk about how our culture starts very young, in teaching children to dehumanize others. It flies under the radar too often, and here I want to start simply by making people aware of the problem. Notice how a famous children's author cues her readers which characters they are supposed to hate by referring to the characters in sub-human terms -- that, is, by dehumanizing them. The animal comments are often even less subtle than having them perform animal actions like slither or snarl or waddle.

Some early introductions from book 2 of a series:

  • Aunt Petunia was horse-faced and bony.
  • Dudley was blond, pink, and porky. 
  • Uncle Vernon sat back down, breathing like a winded rhinoceros ...

From book 3:

  • Aunt Petunia, who was bony and horse-faced
  • Uncle Vernon snarled
  • Dudley came waddling down the hall

From book 4:

  • her lips pursed over her horse-like teeth 
  • ."You," he barked at Harry. [Vernon again]
  • Dudley was crammed into an armchair, his porky hands beneath him

In book 5, I expect we could look up the introductions of Harry's relatives again, though the new villain of the book might add some insight as to how an author dehumanizes a character, and does it in a way calculated to cause revulsion:
He thought she looked just like a large, pale toad. She was rather squat, with a broad, flabby face, as little neck as Uncle Vernon, and a very wide, slack mouth. Her eyes were large, round, and slightly bulging. Even the little black velvet bow perched on top of her short curly hair put him in mind of a large fly she was about to catch on a long sticky tongue. 
The character of Dolores Umbridge is almost entirely hate-bait, one of the characters introduced in order for the audience to despise them, and to be glad when something bad happens to them. Even Voldemort is given a more sympathetic backstory than Vernon Dursley or Dolores Umbridge.

An author can tempt -- or manipulate -- hatred from her audience. One of the standard tools for doing that is to dehumanize a character. And of course it's just fiction. That doesn't make it one bit smarter to accept hatred as part of how we react to people.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Parallel parables: wheat/weeds, and unmerciful servant

The kingdom of heaven is like ...

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed, but found something else growing. He planted wheat, so he had good reason look for wheat and expect to find wheat. He found weeds among the wheat. Somebody else had planted that.

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like someone who forgave another man a large debt. He showed mercy, so he had good reason to look for mercy and expect to find mercy in the other person. Instead he found pettiness and a hard-hearted, self-righteous self-interest. Somebody else had planted that. The other person hadn't recognized the mercy as redemption or as peace or as reconciliation. He hadn't recognized it as an act of compassion or love. Had he imagined that mercy was rightly due to him? To himself, and nobody else? Ingratitude is a close neighbor to arrogance.

So those two parables of the kingdom of heaven are parallel to each other in some basic ways.

Is every act of God a seed that he plants? It would explain why, if God is holy, his people are called to be holy, if he is merciful then his people are called to be merciful. It would explain how righteousness is rooted in the character of God. And how, because of God's love, the world can know Christ's disciples by their love.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

How marriage became a piece of paper, and what Christians could do to strengthen it

As my children get closer to the age where they might, some day, marry, I think about some of the objections I hear to marriage from their generation.

One of the objections against marriage these days is that it is "just a piece of paper". A genuinely Christian marriage is more than that. But legally, is there some truth to that charge? Under current law, it seems as though an apartment lease or home mortgage has more legal consequence and binding force than a marriage. Under the marriage laws where I live, if two people are married, one can leave the other for any reason at all -- even if the person being left has done nothing wrong, even if the reason for leaving is to run off with a new romantic interest -- and not only do they face no legal consequences for leaving, but can lay legal claim to half the other person's financial assets. With no-fault divorce, someone can leave a marriage without consequence, possibly even with financial gain, even if the other person has worked to hold up their end of the marriage. When marriage is no longer a vow, and not even legally binding to a large extent, that accusation "just a piece of paper" has some truth to it.

The marriage laws were, in earlier generations, a protection against that kind of injustice rather than an empowerment of it. There was a culture-wide agreement about what a marriage was, how it was built and strengthened, and that there were very few legitimate reasons to leave it. Those agreement were part of the law. In some times and places, the legitimate reasons to leave a marriage were limited to the insanity of the other person, or their unfaithfulness. Some consideration might be given for abandonment (where the other person has moved out). One of the additional reasons considered at various times was physical abuse. There is a lot of difference between that and a no-fault divorce. In a Christian marriage it might be permitted for the innocent party to divorce an adulterer, but it would not be permitted for the adulterer to divorce the innocent party and claim half their financial asset into the bargain. It is understandable that there are people who are skeptical of marriage. And those with financial assets to protect, these days, often have prenuptial agreements in recognition that current marriage laws provide little or no legal protection.

What if there was an agreed prenuptial agreement to strengthen the current marriage agreement into what previous generations would have recognized as a marriage? Would Christians consider signing prenuptial agreements that the marriage was not revocable by divorce except if there had been a violation of the marriage by the other party, with the specific circumstances described such as a diagnosed serious mental illness, adultery, abuse or abandonment? What if there was a provision that, if a court should overthrow the binding nature of the prenuptial agreement or that a divorce should somehow be attained outside of its provisions, that the party in violation of the agreement was, in that act, giving up all claim to the financial assets of the other? What kind of prenuptial agreement would it take for the next generation to be able to have the legal protections on their families that previous generations took for granted?