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Following Jesus in an Evil World

sunset

A few months ago I chose a passage in Matthew 13 to speak on this past Sunday. The parable of the weeds highlights living with evil (righteousness and evil growing in the same soil), even though evil will, in the end, be thrown into the eternal fire.

As events in Baton Rouge, then Minneapolis, then Dallas, then Nice, France took place, it seemed all the more poignant to consider how Christ followers live in light of an evil world. While facing evil some want to run to doomsday theology, forgetting the fact that for the Christian, fear is a liar. I think there’s a decidedly different approach that Bible presents, in light of the gospel.

The Protection of Hell

In his book The Skeletons in God’s Closet, Joshua Ryan Butler rightly points out the common reference to “hell” in the Bible is a physical place known as the Valley of Hinnom. Evil, having no place in heaven, is thrown outside the city gates, to a place where idolatry and injustice can reign as they light their own fires. Here’s a diagram he uses to describe heaven and earth’s relation to hell:

comparing-heaven-earth-stories-1024x503

 

On the left we have the problematic understanding of heaven and earth and hell. In this we see ourselves on earth, and from earth we either go to heaven or hell for eternity. But this is not what the Bible says about earth’s relationship to heaven.

In the Gospel story the Bible presents earth is full of hell and it’s evil, but upon the return of Jesus, heaven comes down to earth, and hell is banished outside of the walls of this new earth, this new Jerusalem, the city of God. God excludes sin, evil, hell, from his kingdom because of his goodness, for the sake of protecting what is good.

We see this within the book of Revelation, during the climactic end of the Bible story. God, with the 2nd coming of Christ, brings down the new Jerusalem, down from heaven to earth. From this capital city, God’s ruling, reigning, restorative power goes out into all of the world, the holy city standing at the center of all of it, as all things are made new.

It is this New Jerusalem which stands in contrast to gehenna, hell, the valley of Hinnom. As Butler says, “Through the new Jerusalem, we see God’s posture as one of welcoming embrace, but sin and her allies are never allowed to enter inside the city gates: ‘Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful (Revelation 21:27).'”

Fear is Everywhere

What does this have to do with evil in today’s world?

Well, everything actually. Check out Colossians 2:15, where Paul writes, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Christ has exposed evil for what it is, triumphing over it, and evil is soon to be cast outside of the holy dwelling of God with his people.

Therefore, there’s nothing to fear.

Fear has a stranglehold on the world today. Politicians are turning fear into a commodity for the sake of votes. Every day a new headline appears that can cause your life to go into a tailspin. Yet the Christian believer has nothing to fear. Nothing.

The most frequently stated command in the entire Bible is “do not be afraid.” This doesn’t even include variations of that phrase. Do not be afraid. Why? How? Because believers are eternally protected by the fire of God’s holy love for his children (Zechariah 2:5).

When the Messiah is born and the earthly king sends soldiers to kill him…do not be afraid.

When an entire town is furious enough to push the Messiah off of a cliff…do not be afraid.

When the ruler of the free world is targeting Christians and killing their leaders…do not be afraid.

When fear and violence overtake the headlines all over the world…do not be afraid.

In the face of unrest and violence, with fear winning the battle over society, Christians must be a stabilizing force of hope, pointing people to the light shining out of the darkness.

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Being Black

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in the United States. I’ve only ever been white, my whole life.

Last night video showed a man dying in the seat of his car, having been shot by a police officer while he was grabbing his ID the officer asked for, having already identified his legally held weapon. This happened a few miles from the house I grew up in, near Minneapolis.

This was all shown on Facebook Live, while his girlfriend was being handcuffed, and his 4-year-old daughter helplessly watched. His name is Philando Castile. His tail light was out. This follows the cell phone footage of Alton Sterling being shot in the head for carrying a gun in his pocket.

This is unthinkable and it demands outrage.

I’m as tired of outrage culture as anyone else, but when we call a man dying a death he did not deserve part of outrage culture, we silence the voice of the oppressed.

It’s interesting that Christian culture has embraced a select few hip-hop artists as part of their club. These guys champion the gospel. They do it in a way that is “relevant” (Christians love to be relevant) to a part of society many struggle to relate with. The most conservative of Christian organizations has welcomed many of these guys with open arms.

But when these individuals start calling out the systemic brutality of a race, people call foul, people call outrage culture, people turn on them. How cowardly.

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in the United States, so I’m choosing to listen to those who are. Maybe you should too.

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The Inept Empowerment of Self-Expression

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I read a news headline a week ago that said “breastfeeding bride nurses during wedding ceremony, getting praise from moms around the world.” At first I thought, “great work from The Onion on that one.” But no, it’s real.

I have no intention of having a debate about breastfeeding. I simply want to make the observation about the narrative surrounding breastfeeding, which is that moms should be able to nurse wherever is needed. This is the all-too-common narrative of empowerment and self-expression.

This is certainly not unique to breastfeeding. These issues make headlines every single day. Racial tensions. Gun rights. Political activism. Religious liberty. Today the cure for marginalization is self-expression. Those who do not provide for the self-expression of others are those who are marginalizing others.

Expressive Individualism

Sociologists describe this societal push as expressive individualism: the belief that identity comes through self-expression, through discovering one’s most authentic desires and being free to be one’s authentic self.

In light of this growing belief system (yes belief system, self-expression has a rigorous devotion today), I want to ask the question: when should you limit yourself? When should you choose not to exercise your rights?

Even in Jesus’ day there was a remarkable focus on personal rights, chief among them the right to life. He said in John 10 about his own right to life: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Here we see Jesus saying ‘I have this right but I choose not to exercise it.’ In fact, in many things in life, the highest value comes not in exercising your rights, but in laying them down for the sake of others.

Can you find true satisfaction in life by being able to express who you are? Or is something missing? Is there a reason to limit yourself for the sake of freedom?

The only way to be truly fulfilled in your self-expression is for someone or something outside of yourself to validate it. This is why there’s such backlash against people and groups who come across as inhibiting self-expression today, because the validation of self-expression is necessary for the fulfillment of it.

Self-expression is basically a performance then, where you try to get others to like you and your expression of yourself.

A Better Way

This is what makes the Christian faith so powerfully different.

While God’s Word allows for all people to express who they are, validation is not given through expression. God sees you and already validates you, so you don’t have to look to people and things beyond yourself to give you a pat on the back.

Because we are already validated and loved by God, we are freed from the constant need to fully express ourselves, to instead keep our eyes focused on the needs of others. You can be freed, through limitation.

David Brooks of the New York Times had this to say to high school graduates a few years back:

“Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center. Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

The Christian does not need to find empowerment through self-expression because they worship a God who gave up his rights, and He empowers you to find the truest life by giving up yours. 

{Image: Jayme Burrows}

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The Danger of Likes (or why I joined Snapchat)

snapchat

I joined Snapchat. There, I said it. I admit it. If you want proof, find me here.

I joined Snapchat because I was sick of hearing people joining and loving it. I knew all the bad press, all the misuses of the app, but I decided to give it a shot. And I have to say, I kind of love it.

Why, you ask?

Because there’s no likes.

Still don’t get what I’m saying?

Ok, I’ll explain.

Snapchat is an awful user experience.

  • It’s nearly impossible to add friends unless they’re in your phone contacts.
  • You can’t use it on a computer, only through a phone application.
  • The first screen you see when you open the app is your camera. There’s no explanation for what to do after that.
  • There’s no way to provide public feedback for something a friend has posted. No likes, no shares, no retweets, no comments. Only private messages (Snaps), and posts to your Story (those stay posted for your friends to view for 24 hours).

And that last one, there’s the rub. Snapchat is a social network that has almost zero marketability. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram—users push their content and their products all the time. It’s overrun with content videos and opinion pieces. None of that stuff works on Snapchat. No links. Just stories using pictures and videos.

The Danger of the Public Forum

There’s a danger to using a public forum that allows public feedback on everything posted. You begin to share your life in a way that will be appreciated by as many as possible. Just look at this profile of a 13 year-old, she deletes every picture that doesn’t get enough likes. No joke.

Throughout the four gospel accounts, Jesus performs various signs and wonders, many ending with Jesus telling those He touches and heals not to tell anyone. And there’s the time when He tells His disciples not to tell anyone that they think Jesus is the Messiah (Mark 8).

People have come up with various explanations for this, but I think one reason for this is that Jesus didn’t want to become a celebrity. That, in fact, humans were not meant to receive unending praise, our egos can’t handle all of it.

Maybe this is why Jesus taught his followers to go into their rooms to pray. And maybe this is why he said “Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others” (Matthew 6:1, NLT). Not only, he says, will you lose your heavenly reward, but it’s likely you’ll become a slave to the admiration of others.

Shaping Your Life for Likes

Now, let me be clear, I’m not saying that being on Snapchat is a Jesus-approved thing, or that the people who use other social networks are less godly (God knows, I’m on all of them). I’m simply sharing my own struggle with watching some of my favorite social networks become great places for platforms and marketing and content and commercials. Once you can get enough likes, social networks make better business platforms than relational connectors.

When we’re telling the stories of our lives on networks that universally utilize public feedback forums, we begin to shape our lives for likes, and this is damaging to our souls. We create a false reality for the sake of improved reach and likeability, instead of the messy reality, where we need God’s help each and every day.

In a sense, a life adjusted for likes becomes a gospel-less life where we can be good enough, and everyone else will like that. I want social networks to be social, but I worry I shape my life too much for the sake of everyone else appreciating it and I don’t like that.

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The Holy Spirit as Manifested Love

thevoiceofthemountain

In his book The Face of the Deep, Paul Pastor makes a striking comparison between Isaiah’s unclean lips and the touching of the Spirit upon the mouths of those at Pentecost in Acts 2.

I’ve only ever known emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s coming at Pentecost to divide Christians. At a Pentecost Sunday church gathering many years ago I remember a pastor explaining to the congregation he was going to wait in silence until the Spirit showed Himself through a sign. I nearly walked out, but I thought that would probably be as ridiculous as whatever the pastor was doing.

What Paul Pastor invites his readers to do is to consider how this event of the Spirit poured out at Pentecost fits within the larger Bible story. He begins with a focus on Isaiah 6:

“Isaiah’s fear and healing did not come to his eyes nor to his hands, feet, mind, or even his heart. The prophet was terrified in the presence of the Holy One because his mouth was dirty, backward, unclean.

And his cleansing came when his lips were touched by the fire of God.” (pg. 213)

Then comes this connection between the Tower of Babel’s scattering of the people through language, the unclean lips of Isaiah, and the fire of the Spirit seen at Pentecost:

“Pure speech in the Spirit is love, given whatever voice is best suited to the situation, to the hearers…

Pentecost seen this way, becomes more than just a happy arrival. It is part of a huge human story that stretches from a half-built tower on the plain of Shinar to you and me, the chosen of God yet scattered across the world…

The Spirit teaches us to speak as he did, to speak with love, pure and true as fire.” (pp. 216-217)

I commend Pastor’s work in The Face of the Deep to you. I see it has a needed corrective to understand the expansive work of love from God’s Spirit beyond the typical debates that rage.

May your unclean lips be set ablaze.

Image: Martin French (follow link to view/purchase artwork from Pastor’s book)

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Why I Will Not Be Voting for a President This Year

nevertrump

Barring the unlikely 3rd party candidate I’d like to see come forward, I will not be voting for a President in this year’s United States Presidential election.

The reasons why are a bit convoluted, so let me share my own context.

I’m a pastor at an evangelical church where the majority of the congregation is conservative minded folks. I come from a conservative family. I’ve only ever known the logical decision in voting to be for a Republican.

I am an unaffiliated voter in the state of Oregon, but on nearly every voting opportunity I have, I vote Republican. I am pro-life, fiscally conservative, and for small government, and while I do not agree with Republicans on a number of issues, their platform most aligns with my own.

My reasons for not voting for Hillary Clinton (those of you who are feeling the Bern can settle down, his nomination seems unlikely, at best) are simple:

  • She served in the cabinet of the most socially liberal President the U.S. has ever had.
  • She has zero value for the life of the unborn.
  • She will continue the crusade against religious liberty that is very much in style today.
  • Oh and she’s under investigation by the FBI.

This leaves essentially one other candidate to vote for, Donald Trump. I have family members who will vote Trump. I have many church friends who will vote Trump. Based on the context of my life, I am expected to hold the party line by voting for Trump.

But I will not vote for Trump. Here’s why:

Donald Trump is not a Leader, He’s a Dictator

Trump wants to “open up” libel laws so he can easily sue news organizations who speak unkindly about him. These laws have been upheld in court by justices from various perspectives. This desire of Trump’s shows that he does not know how to deal with people who disagree with him. He’d rather fire those against him, instead of being a true leader who works to build consensus and camaraderie.

In speaking kindly about Vladimir Putin and the Chinese government’s handling of Tiananmen Square, Trump shows he has no desire to lead, he simply wants to dictate with power and strength.

Donald Trump is a “Christian” for Political Purposes

Following his victory in South Carolina’s Republican primary Trump exclaimed, “I love the evangelicals.” He has spoken of being a Christian yet wasn’t sure he needed forgiveness, saying, “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness. I don’t bring God into that picture.”

If Trump went to my church I would tell him that the narrow road leading to life is found only through the recognition of a need for God and the forgiveness he offers. Any person who believes they do not need forgiveness has chosen their own road, not God’s.

Donald Trump Will Hinder Religious Liberty

People expect a Republican Presidential candidate to loosen governmental oversight, therefore increasing religious liberty and the rights that go with it, but with Trump this would not be the case.

One of the largest campaign platforms Trump has run on is banning Muslims from coming into the United States. No question there’s a general fear of Muslims in the US due to extremists, so Trump is stoking these fears and then using it as a way to generate support. If you are against the religious liberty of a religion other than your own, then you are against religious liberty.

Donald Trump is a Hillary Clinton Supporter

Back in 2007, as Clinton pushed toward the Democratic nomination that Obama ultimately won, Trump had a difficult time choosing whether to support fellow New Yorker Rudy Guiliani or Hillary, saying, “They’re both terrific people, and I hope they both get the nomination.”

This illustrates a bigger issue, the fact that Trump has consistently changed his stance on people and issues. Like being blown by the wind, Trump seems to discern what position and person helps him in the moment, but when the wind changes direction so does he. Donald Trump is a liar who continually shifts for the sake of his own benefit.

Oh, and there’s other reasons too…

I have yet to mention that Donald Trump owns a strip club, or the various degrading comments he’s made toward women, or the white supremacists he’s welcomed support from, or the ‘I could shoot someone and not lose support’ comment, or the casinos he’s used to garner his wealth, or the negative comments about a war hero because “I like people who weren’t captured”—no, I haven’t mentioned any of that despite their relevance to the subject.

I believe there’s a better way forward for our country. Yes, it seems that better way is at least four years away now, but the best way to assure we move in that direction is by staying silent on voting day. Your silence in November will speak loudly for generations to come, that we must do better than this.

One ending side note to all this:

“But not voting Trump is a vote for Hillary! We can’t let her in office!” This is the line that Trump supporters have used over and over. Newt Gingrich used the same line in The Washington Times recently, then Bobby Jindal did the same thing in the Wall Street Journal.

A vote on a ballot is a vote for someone, an endorsement for the Presidential office, and a moral act, and Donald Trump is not fit for that office.

At the same time, Matthew Lee Anderson reminds us there are bigger things at stake than an election: “the witness of the Gospel exceeds the tyrannical urgency of political action in a democratic society: it expands the horizon of our hope beyond the election in November, and beyond its consequences over the next four and four hundred years.”

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