Friday, May 30, 2008

Sacred & Secular Belief (Or, Why I Am Not a Democrat) Part 2

Rich got me thinking with his response to part 1 of this discourse about the political nature of the statement, "Jesus is Lord." I had always taken it as a cosmological and eschatological statement first, and its political implications were worked out through that framework.

Now I'm wondering if the statement, "Caeser is Lord," was ever merely a political statement. Did the Roman emperors mean much more by that title? Was saying, "I am Lord" similar to saying "I am emperor," or "I am president?" Or were they implying something more, possibly something approaching the divine?

Regardless, Jesus didn't coin the creed, "Jesus is Lord." That was a later, apostolic invention. (Though I do believe Jesus inspired it through the Holy Spirit.)

Moreover, Jesus had the opportunity to lead a political rebellion. After feeding the 5,000 [men, and many more women and children besides], they wanted to make him king. Yet he refused, even to the point of walking on water in order to get away from them (not to mention the other things he says in John 6 to discourage the 5,000).

He could have made a political statement, and quite a large one, too. He had a ready-made army of 5,000. But instead he drove them off with an extremely difficult teaching. He had no interest in becoming king, even turning down the right to rule all the kingdoms of the world if he would only have bowed down to Satan. Jesus refused to be made king according to the will of men or devils. He would only be made king according to the will of the Father.

I don't know how to read this other than concluding that Jesus was at least unpolitical, if not antipolitical. What hope was there for him in the governments of men? What can the state do through taxation and legislation that he can't do through salvation and sanctification? I'm not saying that he is an anarchist. Far from it, actually. What I am saying is that Jesus didn't concern himself deeply with the workings of government and politics. It's as though he says, "The government is to be respected, but it's not going to be the vehicle through which I work."

If he had been concerned about the state, then he certainly would have liberated Israel. But, of course, rather than liberating Israel from Rome, Jesus liberated mankind from sin. He left behind a small group of confessing and believing followers, which is later described as the "body of Christ." This is the core of my understanding of the Church. It is the "body of Christ" on earth.

Jesus has ascended to Heaven, yet he has left us the Holy Spirit, and his body--the Church. Therefore, Jesus is still here on earth in bodily form. His body is all who confess and believe and follow him. And it is their calling (our calling) to do the things that he did and wants to do now.

It is this understanding of the Church that influences how I understand the State. Hopefully anyone who reads these ramblings will help me to sort this through before I post part 3.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Punching the Lion

Tonight I will be preaching at Otterbein Christian Fellowship. They've asked me to speak about summer break and its various spiritual pitfalls. So I tried my best. This is a bit of a different take on the subject, and it relates more to spiritual loneliness, which I think is the core problem that students deal with over summer break. Here's the manuscript.

Punching the Lion

So summer break is right around the corner. Must be nice. Back in my day we didn’t have summer vacation. Heck, we didn’t even have summer. That’s right, when I was in college, it snowed year round. And we had to walk to class, uphill both ways. That’s right, the earth wasn’t fully formed back then, so you never knew what you had to walk through to get home. It was terrible! But now you kids with your seasons, and your sunshine, and your breaks from school. Ridiculous.

So my name is Andy Holt, and I’m a crotchety old man. I turned 29 this month, so I won’t be in a very good mood for the rest of my life. I work at Heritage Christian Church, and I graduated from Ohio State back when we used to lose to Michigan every year. So that was a long time ago.

Summer break is a weird concept, isn’t it? I mean, it’s completely counterproductive to your education. You go to school for nine months, and then you’re off for three months, and you completely forget everything you learned in the past year. Summer break is a total academic regression. It’s amazing how much time it takes us to get smart, and then how little time it takes for us to get stupid again.

But we don’t just regress academically; we can also regress spiritually. We go back to old situations and act like the person we used to be. We find ourselves more susceptible to old temptations, old habits, and old patterns of thinking. The new thing that God has been doing gets undermined because we go back to the way things used to be. We’re not with the new friends we have now. We’re not n the same Christian community. We regress spiritually because we are spiritually alone. So with the ideas of spiritual regression and spiritual loneliness in mind, I’ve titled this sermon, Punching the Lion.

I’ll explain what I mean by “punching the lion” in a bit; but I hope that I can bring a new perspective on spiritual loneliness tonight. There are a lot of ways that I could talk about this subject. I could give you five ways to not be spiritually lonely. Or I could tell you about how God is close to the lonely, the downcast, and the brokenhearted. But that’s not on my heart tonight. What is on my heart is the response of the Christian community to spiritual loneliness.

You see, I believe that God speaks, primarily, through the Bible. I also believe that God acts, primarily, through the Church. To be more specific, in this setting, God acts through OCF. He does stuff when you all do his stuff.

So I believe that God overcomes spiritual loneliness through the actions of the Christian community. In other words, God doesn’t lay the guilt trip on the lonely person to go make himself unlonely. Instead, he calls the community of believers, and the individuals within that community, to surround that person with the love of Christ. God remedies our spiritual loneliness with spiritual friendship, and the act of spiritual friendship is like punching the lion in the face for the sake of our friends.

Each one of us will go through a time, or many times, in our life when we will be or feel spiritually alone. I am certainly no stranger to being and feeling spiritually alone.

After my freshmen year, back in the Ice Age, I spent my summer break on a Crusade-like project in Myrtle Beach. It wasn’t with Crusade, but an organization like it. It was a really great summer for me. I grew a ton spiritually. I lived in a beach house with ten guys. It was great.

But between the end of the project and the start of school, I was at home for a month. Now, I have a great Christian family, and I went to a great church, but there was no one there that I could relate with, spiritually. I had changed and grown a lot in the past year, but it had all been somewhere else, with other people. What had happened to me during the past year of growth and change hadn’t happened to or with the people I had grown up with. This made me feel very lonely. I was spiritually alone for a month.

This was a very dark month for me. I fell into some of my old habits, and some of my old ways of thinking. One night, I even had a physical sensation like the Holy Spirit was decreasing in me. I don’t know the theology behind that experience, and I’m probably not interpreting it correctly. All I can say is that I had a physical sensation of spiritual regression.

I was spiritually alone. I was separated from the community in which I had grown and matured so much. This is a dangerous place to be. When we are alone, we are more vulnerable to attacks from the devil. We’re like a zebra out by itself on the African plain. The lions are on the hunt, and that zebra is about to become dinner.

If I were watching a nature show, and I saw a zebra on the plain by itself, my first thought would be, “Stupid zebra. Don’t you know there are lions everywhere?”

And I wonder if too many of us, myself included, don’t respond the same way to lonely Christians. “Stupid Christian. Don’t you know the devil is out to get you? Get to church, dummy.” But that’s not very helpful, is it? “Go to church, stupid.” “Oh, okay.” It would be more helpful if we, the Christian community--the Church--went to them, and we punched the lion who is hunting them right in the face.

Let’s take a look at some Scripture. Turn to 1 Peter 5:8-9.

Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

Now, according to the way, have you heard of Wikipedia? “Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.” (Michael Scott) Anyway, according to Wikipedia, lions are opportunistic hunters. They take the closest prey, regardless of health. Whichever buffalo or zebra is closest, that’s the one they’re going after.

I’m not sure how much Peter knew about lions, so I really don’t know how far to stretch this metaphor. But I think the point is simply this: the devil is dangerous, so don’t put yourself in harm’s way.

When we are alone for an extended period of time, when we are spiritually alone, we are in harm’s way. We are more vulnerable when we are outside of Christian community.

I used to think that my faith was not genuine unless I could live apart from my Christian friends and still grow spiritually. But that’s just foolish. It’s the lone wolf mentality, and you may as well call it the used-to-be-a-Christian mentality, because that’s where you’re going to wind up if you try to do this on your own. I used to be a Christian, but then I tried to be a Christian all by myself, and I stopped being a Christian. The lion prowls around looking for someONE to devour. Lonely zebra! Bang! Dinner.

We need each other to survive. We are communal beings. Even lions hunt in packs. Christians need Christians in order to stay Christians. That’s just the way God designed us. The individual needs the group, and the group needs to look out for the individual. Punching the lion simply means that we’re looking out for each other, and that we’re willing to fight for each other.

The devil is out there, and he is a patient and cunning hunter. He doesn’t want to pick a fight with the whole church. He’d much rather take us out one by one. He will wait until you’re alone, and then he will pounce.

So if you see someone who is spiritually alone, reach out to them. Understand that they’re in a vulnerable position. It doesn’t really matter why they’re alone, maybe they even do it to themselves. But just because someone is foolish and arrogant doesn’t mean they ought not be loved. Reaching out to the spiritually alone is an act of love, and it is an act that God himself does through you.

You see, if the devil’s going to get one of you, the rest of you ought to make him earn it. This verse tells us to resist the devil by standing firm in the faith. This is something that we can all live out together. If the devil is going to come after one of us, then make him get through all of us. Let us all resist the devil, together, for the sake of the one. We should be telling the devil, as a community, “If you want to get to her, you’re going to have to go through us!”

If he wants to pick a fight, fine, then let him pick a fight. But let’s make sure the fight is with all of God’s people in the community, not just the one poor soul who wound up alone. The community ought to be looking after the individual. We ought to be resisting the devil together, and coming to the rescue of the one who is suffering.

Sometimes I wonder if we haven’t gotten this whole spiritual warfare thing backwards. Why do we always have to be the victims? Shouldn’t Satan be the one complaining, “I’m under spiritual attack!”? Shouldn’t the church be advancing against the gates of hell? Shouldn’t we be punching the lion in the face and pulling our brothers and sisters from its jaws?

Are we just going to stand by while our friends disappear from the fellowship, one by one? Are we going to be passive in the presence of the roaring lion? Or are we going to pick up the phone and call each other this summer? Are you going to send texts and emails to your friends, to see how they’re doing? Are you going to keep an eye on their facebook status, or look at what kind of pictures they’re posting? Are you going to speak up? Ask the hard questions? Fight for them, even at the risk of offending them? If your friend was being dragged off by a lion, wouldn’t you at least punch it?

In groups just like this there are almost always more freshmen than seniors. Why is that? How many people who were here three years ago aren’t here now because they got picked off by the lion? They got separated from the group because they were angry, or hurt, or discouraged, or busy, or shunned, or whatever. They got separated from the fellowship and then they got picked off by the lion. They went home for the summer, fell into old habits, and never reconnected with the group. That’s how it happens. It’s subtle. It’s slow. And it’s deadly effective.

The truth is that some of you who are here now may not be here in the fall, and not because you transferred or graduated. But if we stay connected to each other as the people of God, then we can fight the lions off together.

When you say your goodbyes, don’t say, “I’ll see you in the fall.” Say, “I’ll call you next week.” Or, “I’ll send you a text or e-mail to see if you got home alright.” Or, “I’ll give you a call in a couple of weeks to find out what kind of church you’re going to now.” Or, “Make sure you write on my wall.” Or whatever. Don’t say “I’ll see you in the fall.” The fall is too far away. A lot can happen between now and September.

I want to show you a video now. It’s from youtube, and most of you have probably already seen it. It’s kind of long, about eight minutes. But I think it’s a wonderful parable for how the church ought to respond when the lions come after one of its own. Let’s watch this together, and then I’ll get up and pray when it’s done.

Let’s pray.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Life I've Always Wanted

Last week I asked my pastor to mentor me, and he told me to just look in the mirror and do whatever that guy tells me. I wasn't sure if he was serious (about half-serious), but I was certainly convicted by his point. I already know what I need to do, it's just a matter of doing it. And that's the hard part, isn't it? It never seems to matter how much I want to exercise (or do a lot of things that I want or should do), I simply don't do it. My lack of discipline and get-up-and-go is truly embarrassing. Would I want other people to have my will power? Is this how I would want my friends to live their lives?
Doing the things that I want and should do is really what is best for me. They are the things that I want my friends to do because they are what is best for them. So if I want the best for others, why do I refuse (like a sluggard) to do the best for myself? It truly is humiliating. I ought to listen to the man in the mirror.
So in that vein, here the simple things that I want and ought to do to live the life I've always wanted:
  • read the Bible every day as an act of worship
  • engage in more thoughtful acts of worship and devotion
  • pray on my way to and from work
  • exercise every day
  • pray with my wife at night
  • eat healthy food
  • stop drinking pop
  • spend less than I make
  • tithe every month
  • save every month
  • stay engaged at work
  • work on my screenplay every day
  • take photos once a week
  • read a book a week
  • spend better time with my family
  • have intentionally spiritual conversations with friends
  • lavish others with praise
I suppose the list could go on. But really, what is so hard about any of these? Why is it so difficult to do these things consistently? I want to do all of them, but I constantly find myself doing other things that have no lasting value.
What a wretched man I am. Were it not for the grace of Jesus, I would be utterly lost. Thank you Jesus, may I be found in you. Please give me the strength of will to do the things I want and ought to do.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sacred & Secular Belief (Or, Why I Am Not a Democrat) Part 1

Note: this is part one of an indefinite amount of posts. This entry will, hopefully, represent the bulk of what I post here, in that it is a place for me to sound out my thoughts, which are so often in-process. This will be something more akin to a stream-of-consciousness essay.

I find that I have two belief structures--my sacred beliefs, or theology, and my secular beliefs, or philosophy (for lack of a better word). Often, these two structures are in conflict with one another, particularly when it comes to the arena of politics, or more appropriately, state government.
As a Christian, I gather the majority of my theological beliefs from my interpretation of the Bible. My political beliefs, however, seem to come from a different stream (though not entirely unrelated). Yet I have this nagging guilt that the Bible ought to be the source of my governmental and political philosophy, even though I'm doubtful of how much it speaks directly to this, outside of theocracy. If I'm to be a good Christian, shouldn't I get all of my beliefs, including my politics, from Scripture?
If I were to draw a straight line from Scripture to politics, paying special attention to the words of Jesus (the red letters), I think that I would, like many progressive evangelicals (esp. Emergent), be a Democrat, or at least politically liberal. However, I'm not convinced that there is a straight line to be drawn from Scripture to state government. Jesus didn't tell us to put our hope in elected (or non-elected, as in so much of the world) leaders. He merely told us to obey and respect them. Paul even goes so far as to say that it would be best for us to live quiet lives in respect to the state.
Despite what I'm hearing from certain circles of Christendom, Jesus was not a political activist. He did not seek, like Judas Maccabees or Simon ben Kishoba (sp?), the usurpation of occupying governments. He did not seek the restoration of political Israel. (However, I do believe that he sought and achieved the restoration of Israel {and of all the world} through the forgiveness of sins.) Jesus was not a rebel, in the political sense; and I truly believe that this ought to influence our hermeneutic, particularly of these "red-letters." If Jesus was not a political activist, and if he did not offer salvation through political, governmental, or state means, then we ought to be wary of giving his words a political application. In other words, we ought not apply our sacred beliefs through secular means.

I'll try to sort out the implications of this thought in a post soon.

Busy Weekend

Our friends from Cleveland came into town today. We had such a great time with them! It has been far too long since we've seen them. They're thinking about having kids, so we let them rent ours for a couple hours to try and figure this whole parenting thing out. I think it went okay, except that our son is now deathly afraid of trees. Not sure what that's all about.
My parents are coming in to town tomorrow. We've got a family reunion in a neighboring suburb. Apparently I have some relatives that live nearby. Who knew?
Tomorrow night my wife's whole family is coming down to stay with us. We have a two-bedroom townhouse. My wife has 4 siblings. 2 of them are married with kids. I have a sneaking suspicion I'll be sleeping on a floor somewhere. I just hope it's one of the carpeted ones.
We've got a tee-time bright and early Monday morning. I haven't golfed in 15 years. (Unless mini golf counts, which I think it doesn't.) I'll consider it a good day if I don't cuss.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How I'm Spoiled #151

Since we've moved to a bigger place my wife has started cooking more. Even though our kitchen is small, she has a lot more space than at the old place. And apparently that has set her free, because she has burn churning out some amazing dinners lately. I'm too ignorant to describe the cuisine, but all I can say is that even the green beans were delicious! Not only that but she brought home some red wine, and she's making cookies as I type this. Oh yeah, we're about to get stupid sophisticated up in here tonight!
On a side note, I decided to go with "Come Thou Fount" by Sufjan for the Memorial Day video. I almost cried watching it with that song, and I'm a stonehearted fox. I never should have doubted myself in the first place. But thanks to all who recommended songs!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

In a Fighting Mood

Sometimes I just feel like fighting. Today could be one of those days. I tend to get myself worked up in my head about the way I think a particular situation is going to go, and then it never actually goes that way. It would be nice for something to play out, just once, exactly the way I imagine it's going to play out, then I would have all my witty and cutting retorts prepared in advance. 

Monday, May 19, 2008

Finding the Right Music

I've been trying to find the right music for the Memorial Day tribute video I'm working on this week. The Memorial Day tribute video is basically a collection of photos of all the folks in our church who have passed away in the past twelve months. It's far and away the most sensitive video I produce every year. The thought of misspelling someone's name or, even worse, putting the wrong name with a picture, makes me shudder. So getting the right music is crucial.
Last year I used "Born" by Over the Rhine. There was a bit of a controversy because of the line "Pour me a glass of wine." (It's a good thing I didn't choose "Changes Come.") I fought for the song because I thought it was thematically and musically appropriate. Ultimately it was cleared by the pastor, and I got a lot of questions from folks that went more or less like this: "Hey Andy, great video! Who sang that song? It was incredible! Where can I get it?" So I certainly felt like it was the right song for the video.
This year I'm looking for something along the same lines, but I'd like to choose a different artist. My first thought is to use Sufjan Stevens' version of "Come Thou Fount." Obviously I won't have the lyrical controversy of last year, but I'm not convinced the song is pretty enough. It has the right mood and tone, but it may be too raw for such a sensitive video.
So even though this is my first post, I'm throwing it out there for any suggestions. What is the right music for a Memorial Day tribute video?