Monday, June 25, 2007

More than compassion

Hey, here's an easy question for my fellow evangelicals: What made Jesus so amazing to his contemporaries? What convinced everyone that God himself was doing something with this guy?

While we ruminate on the obvious, let's talk about some words that have fairly big roles in evangelical Christianity: salvation and gospel. What images come to mind when you hear salvation? Do you think of someone 'praying to receive Christ' for the first time? Or of heaven after death? Or maybe God's pronouncements of (by)passage through final judgement when many will be accepted by God because of Jesus. If you grew up like me, 'salvation' is about pretty heavenly stuff, generally speaking. What about gospel? What do you think of when you hear that? Again, if you grew up like me you maybe think of some of the same stuff as with salvation. Maybe something, too, about Jesus' death and the forgiveness of sins through believing he 'died for us'. But now, back to the original question. What made Jesus so amazing to his contemporaries? Was it offering that kind of 'salvation'? His promises of heaven and threats of hell? Was it his forgiving nature and acts? His brilliant (and radical) take on the Hebrew Scriptures? All of these, I would suggest, he could have done and not drawn any particularly widespread loyalty or hatred, though he likely would have been made into an irrelevant outcast himself, given his contrast with the Judaism of his day. What made everyone (even his enemies) take him so seriously, and not just dismiss this Galilean woodworker? If the gospels are to be believed, it was quite obviously his power that drew deep responses. Namely his power to heal the sick, to remove demons, to raise the dead, to control nature, to rise from the dead himself. It was more than good intentions and compassion towards people. Many feel compassion in those times and today. He was more than just "willing" to help--that made him a nice person--what made Jesus the center of the largest movement in history was that he was "willing and able" to save people from this world's brutalities with power so great it had to be from God.

Here's a similar question: What made the small group of poor and uneducated people (who were adding to their non-credentials the claim that their publicly crucified leader had "risen from the dead") so amazing to their contemporaries? What convinced everyone that God himself was with these people of no account? Why did anyone listen to their messengers who had such global claims? Again, while we think on the obvious, let's discuss our terms for a second. First, when the gospel writers talked about the 'healing' Jesus brought people, they used the same word when talking about the 'salvation' Jesus brought people. In the NT writings, Jesus' physical healings and the more heavenly salvation that he offers are related closely enough to use the same word for each. Whatever we think 'salvation' is, the NT writers didn't just think about heaven when they heard that word. They thought about really being helped--whether in heaven or on earth.

Now, in relating 'gospel' to 'salvation', I've always taken the one (gospel) to be the key, the mechanism, for how the other ('salvation') works. In one scripture the apostle Paul puts it this way, "I'm not ashamed of the gospel, because it's the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes." What happens, though, when we stick a NT concept of 'salvation' into that verse? The 'power' referenced in that verse gets appreciably larger--it goes from being a 'power' about heaven and life after death, to a power concerning heaven and earth--a bigger power. Interestingly, it echos something Jesus said about himself, just before his ascension: "All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me." All authority. heaven and earth. What's more, he said this right before giving what's called 'the Great Commission': "Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations . . ." Even without these particular verses, it's clear from the Gospels and Acts that the 'salvation' people sought and received from Jesus and his disciples wasn't just a heavenly one. It's also clear that Jesus didn't understand himself or his disciples as having no authority over earthly things. They used God's power to save in every possible way, in every possible venue. In that context they invited people to trust Jesus with everything (in heaven and on earth).

Is there a difference between the "salvation" and "gospel" we've announced and the one Jesus and the disciples did? If so, what's the difference? To me, the difference in a nutshell is that we announce a Jesus that lacks power (or willingness) to do things on earth, at least the kind of power that made Jesus' own contemporaries and those of his diciples after him take him and his message seriously. This isn't just an academic issue, either. To misrepresent the power of any king or his kingdom is serious a slander of that king or that kingdom. It might be the most serious slander. It's a particularly effective slander if it comes from that king's own subjects. Before we continue to stand on such a potentially slanderous theology or practice, we ought to have overwhelming biblical support, especially in light of the role that Christ's power to heal played in Jesus' own evangelism, in the disciples' witness, and their disciples' witness (Stephen, Barnabas, etc.). The NT examples are too frequent, the momentum toward practicing the miraculous too strong, to be overthrown on any questionable or scripturally thin theology, and too much is at stake. Out of love for Jesus and the sakes of those to whom we are sent as his ambassadors, we need to honestly ask and seek what kind of 'salvation', what kind of 'savior', that Jesus and his disciples offered the world, compare it to what we offer, and make whatever adjustments are required.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

'Cause I'm a lawyer, dagumit.

In response to this story*, I did exactly what the author invited the readers to do (and made easy to do by creating a wonderful link to the website of the governor of Georgia). Please read the story--it's short and easy to follow. Here's my two bits to the governor (feel free to plagiarize if you want an even easier way to say something):

The attorneys for the State of Georgia who continue to pursue additional prison time and/or the official label of "sex offender" for Genarlow Wilson make a mockery of the legal profession and make the State of Georgia appear to be either completely ignorant of what justice is (which I know it is not), or, worse, willing to to use the power of the State in furtherance of far more disturbing impulses than those which occur at a party between a 17 year old young man and a 15 year old young woman. It would be a travesty regardless of the young man's race, but doing this to a young black man in the South adds fuel to the fires of racism that are still burning, sometimes violently, in every community in the United States, despite much continuing work against them.

I urge you, as the governor of the State of Georgia, to quickly and decisively end the inexcusable pursuits of your subordinates who threaten to further erode the barely existent confidence of the African American community in the American system of "justice." You and your officials aren't just acting for Georgia in this case--in the minds of African Americans accross the country, what you do with this young man will be painted on every prosecutor, every police officer, and every state official for every state in the union. It will either be another reason for distrust and bitterness or a small reason to hope that we are becoming just.
*Caveat: I have not fact-checked the linked story, mainly because it came through yahoo news and not just a blog somewhere. If you want to do more digging before doing anything, cool. I'd appreciate any update on the facts, myself.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Oh, the logical consistency of Jesus

One of the assignments I gave my business law students last term was to read every passage in the NT that had some logical bearing on how to handle money or business issues, quote in full the passages that struck them, and give a brief comment on those passages as well as any themes that emerged. I highly encourage anyone to do this, that is, if you're a person who wants to be loyal to Jesus and also have to use money. Of course, I then had to grade these collections, which meant I got to read a lot of these scriptures several times, along with my students' reflections. I really never believed my own teachers when they talked about how much they had learned from teaching a class. Now I do. I can't really go into everything I got out of that experience in one post, but one important aspect is the logical connections between so many of Jesus' teachings.

Jesus says to love our enemies, even to love them by giving to them. He says to respond to takers with even more giving.*

He says in another place that to be his disciple, we have to be willing to give up all that we have, even our own life. If we don't we can't be his disciple.

He says in another place, we can't serve, pursue, God's interests and Money's. We're going to have to choose whose instrument we're going to be, which master we're going to trust and obey.

He says in yet another place that the message of God's governing of earth, the good news, can be heard but rendered fruitless--producing nothing in a person--by the worries, cares, and desires of this life.

He says people who don't really know God are constantly concerned with things to wear, eat, and use, but that we should be concerned with letting God lead again, and all that stuff will be taken care of by God's undeserved kindness.

There are more, but do you see the connections?

*Incidentally, it is this feature of Christ's teaching that hasn't exactly caught fire among his "followers." It also happens to be God's plan for overcoming evil. So I guess loyalty to money = no fruitful loyalty to God = evil keeps on truckin'.

Friday, March 16, 2007

True or False?

Here's a true/false question I put on my most recent test in business law:

Based on the New Testament's examples and teachings, Christians in a business dispute should be primarily concerned with the money that they have been given by God to steward.
Now, I actually don't think the question is that hard. The fun part, I think, is that it raises other questions for Christians in business (not that I expect the students to remotely think about them during an exam): If building and maintaining my stack of cash shouldn't be the primary objective when in a dispute with others, is it ever supposed to be our primary objective from a New Testament perspective? Is money supposed to be our main goal in planning our advertising? In product design? In customer service? In family relations? "Wait a minute," you may say. "Of course not in family relations, but the other examples are different. They're business, and the reason to be in business is to make money." Really? So, if we spend the bulk of our time at work week to week and year to year, whose servants are we? Another way to look at it would be to talk about whom we are called to love. If we say that family relations are about the good of each person (love) and money is a mere object in comparison to their importance, how do we biblically keep that kind of priority structure within our biological families alone? If I owe the same duty of love to all, how then can it be a cheapening of family relations to make them primarily about money and not with other relations? On what basis do we make actions in business that clearly affect other people about (our) money instead about their good, biblically speaking?

You may say to me (as some students have implied), "But T, none of the economic activities you mentioned would happen at all if not motivated primarily by money." I'm sure there are a lot of activities that wouldn't happen without money being the primary motivator (I'd be happy to see a lot of those ads go, to be honest), but there would still be a whole lot of services and goods produced at God's leading and inspiration alone. There would even be ads, though it would interesting to think about what form they would take. It's interesting to think about what activities would disappear and which ones would emerge if God was the Master behind all activities, if Love was our master even in business. We give money too much credit and God too little if we think that nothing productive would happen without money being our main objective. Jesus didn't just talk in parables, he fed the multitudes; he restocked the wine at a wedding; he healed the sick. Paul talks about doing something useful (for others) with our own hands, and he practiced the same. God gave the Israelites the wisdom of letting their soil rest before science revealed the reason. Just imagine what would happen--and what wouldn't--if serving Jesus' agenda was our primary objective in all our activities, including whatever we might get paid for doing.

Further, I don't see how a 'business is about money' attitude is compatable with the idea of God calling us or leading us to our work for the good of the world, let alone compatible with a gospel of the inbreaking governing of God. Either God calls and continues to lead or money does, and whoever is leading will shape and color the whole activity. My thinking here is essentially based on Jesus' statement "You can't serve both God and money" [at the same time]. Money, of course, tells us, as God does, that it must be given top priority--it is the bottom line, the plumb line, for deciding whether an endeavor as successful or not. This is how money has made even God's people its ambassadors and instruments rather than God's for the bulk of their lives. It is this single dynamic that I think is at the root of all kinds of issues that plague the Western Church as a whole and make the international Church so shocked at the severity of our dualisms. We just trust money more than God for life in this world. Money, in our estimation, gets things done. Jesus may be lord in heaven, but money is lord on earth. This is what our lawsuits, our ads, our schedules and our spending scream to the whole world, as routinely as the earth and stars speak of God's beauty and power.

The only solution to Money's current leadership position that I can think of is to individually increase our personal appreciation for what God does right now in the physical world, and decrease our faith in Money. Money doesn't actually make the world go 'round--God does. Money doesn't actually keep me and my family on this earth, but God does. Money doesn't actually give me my brain and everything else I have to use in the world, but God does. Money doesn't actually control the billions of intangible things that keep my life (including my business) from falling apart. God does. Money didn't lead me to my wife, to my current business and professorship, and it didn't give me my daughter. God did. To reimagine an old Psalm, "I look up to the high rises and skyscrapers, hosting the earth's powers. Does my help come from there? No. My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth." Maybe as we think about all that God does in this world, in our own lives, out of mercy alone--really take some time to wonder about it--we will begin to trust his ability to take care of the practical things and then make his leadership, his reigning, our primary concern. Then, maybe, the activities of the world--even the economic ones--will slowly take a very different shape and character.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Missional Church, part II

As I mentioned in my last post, I feel confident that focusing on Jesus, as he actually is, is foundational for a church. But is there a focus that Jesus himself had that we should also acknowledge? This is where I recalled the substance of a very short book I read a few years ago called How to Find Your Mission in Life by Richard Bolles. (The book was originally published as an appendix to Bolles' longtime bestselling job hunting / career path book, What Color Is Your Parachute?) The thrust of the book is that each of us have 3 missions in life, or one mission with 3 parts, depending on how you view it. The first two missions are shared by everyone, and they are what Jesus called the greatest commandments. Each person's first mission is to "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength." "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever" is the way the Westminister Catechism puts it. Once we begin this mission in earnest, we will be drawn inevitably into the second part of our mission, which is also shared with every other human being, and it is to love other people. On this point, a caveat is in order. Just as we have a tendency to remake Jesus in our image, so too with love, especially when it comes to loving other people. We tend to think that we are loving people, but thanks to Jesus, the term 'love' now has more definite content. "A new command I give you," Jesus said. "Love as I have loved you." Just as Jesus is "the visible image of the invisible God" so he is the revelation of what love is. "This is how we know love" the scriptures say, and then point to his actions for us. As we pursue our first two missions of love, we are no more free to reinvent the term than we are to reinvent Jesus and the God he represents. He has given us, in word and deed, the definition of love that he is asking us all to participate in with all of our being.

According to Bolles, the third part of our mission, that we will discover as we pursue the first two parts in earnest, consists of those things, unique to each of us, that God has gifted and placed us to be and do. To me, this encompasses the longer-term 'missions' like my calling to be a husband to Kim and father to Ruby. No else has the opportunities that I do in those ways, and I am designed for these missions. To a slightly lesser extent, my work as a lawyer and professor and friend to others gives me other aspects of my current mission in life. The key is that the first two missions continually serve as the foundation, the reason, the fuel, the plumbline, for the third. Anything that isn't logically related to the first two missions simply isn't my job to do. Mother Teresa said of her work that it was "something beautiful for God." Of course, there are still lots of decisions between lots of good options: Do I marry this person, someone else, or no one? Is this job offer God's will for me? Where should I live? Etc. And this is precisely where being in community with other 'missionaries' who are also learning how to hear from and follow the living, functioning Christ can be most helpful. Also, in addition to these longer term missions, there are the countless other smaller opportunities for being a human representative and instrument of God every day that make up our unique mission in life. This third part of our mission includes the natural--giving a cup of cold water to _______, and the supernatural--letting God use us as instruments of his loving power.

So, after discussing this with the church that meets in my house, we've decided to let these 3 missions be ours, as continually defined and refined by Jesus himself:

  1. Love God with all that we are and have;
  2. Love others as Jesus has loved us;
  3. Be faithful to discover and complete the missions unique to each of us.

These are our missions. We'll ask each other about how we're doing in them, and do things together to train ourselves for our success in them. The point, though, isn't just to understand these missions or even Christ's teachings as a whole, that is just a necessary step. I've had too many encounters this year with thoroughly evil people who teach Sunday School every week. Fulfilling the mission is the goal.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Missional Church, part I

For a few months or so I've been wondering and reading (hopefully with God) about the little group that meets in my home. Specifically I've been wondering if there is any appropriate way to focus our individual and shared lives to help us all progress in the goals God has for us over the long haul. Our group is very informal, and we know that we're a church, but that's about the extent of the 'focus' week to week. Would a greater degree of focus be helpful? If so, what should it be?

As I thought about these questions, the first place my brain stopped with any degree of confidence was with Jesus himself. Conceptually, this isn't hard to accept--a (Christian) church focuses on Jesus. Learning his priorities and view of things is foundational; it's what makes us "Christian." But I wondered some more, "Is that enough?" Not whether Jesus is enough--he absolutely is. But, as many have noted, we humans have a penchant for being sloppy, highly selective and even partisan in our perception of Jesus. Our ideas about Jesus vary widely. As Gordon Cosby has said, "My Jesus may be your Jesus' worst enemy." Different aspects of Jesus' life and teachings get explained away or ignored in bulk by different parts of the church: Some avoid his supernatural commands and practices that he passed on to the church, others avoid his teachings about tangible mercy, others avoid his teachings regarding the cost of following him, others, the bits about loving and giving to those who wrong us, still others ignore his contemplative (or celebrative) practices, and we almost all avoid his warnings about money. So naming Jesus as our focus should be done with recognition of the widespread practice--within Christianity--of reshaping Jesus as we see fit. Relatedly, the goal God has for us isn't just to learn about Jesus and his teachings--though that is necessary. The goal is to physically embody Jesus and his teachings. I believe it was Kierrkegard that said Jesus has many more admirers than followers. We want to be people whose admiration is such that following is the only logical course of action.

I then wondered if there's any topic worthy enough to be placed immediately after 'Jesus.' And further, what does it mean, practically speaking, to follow Jesus today? Does adding anything at all to 'Jesus' immediately misdirect us to lesser goals? That's my next post.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

And now for something completely different . . .

Congrats to Ohio State and Florida for getting to the "big game" this year. There has been a lot of talk this year (again) about why we need a playoff for college football. "We need to know who the best team is!", it is said. "We need to eliminate, or at least lessen, the role that opinion plays in deciding champions!" And, then--my favorite--"College football is the only major collegiate sport without a playoff!" To all these deft arguments I say, "Baloney, hogwash, hooey, horsefeathers, piffle, poppycock, rubbish, tomfoolery!" (I know, strong language for college football.) But here's why I say so:

To work backwards, who cares if college football is the only collegiate sport without a tournament? It's also the most popular collegiate sport--by far. And it's not just the post-season that draws crowds, viewers and plenty for everyone to comment about (the present controversies included), but the regular season is do or die every week--also unlike every other college sport. Why, exactly, is Ohio State unquestionably deserving to play in the title game? Because they didn't drop a single nail-biting game in the regular season. As USC just demonstrated, that ain't easy--even the weaker teams can and do beat anybody. All the teams know that blanking the loss column is the best possible way to get a shot at the title (and Auburn has most recently proven that even going undefeated is no guarantee--more on that later). What does that must-win-every-game reality do to the regular season? It absolutely electrifies it. Both national and conference titles routinely swing on a single loss. The stakes are high every week. The college football season can be described in three words: drama, drama, drama. Now, if we go to a tournament at the end of the year, does each regular season game matter in the way it does now? I don't see how it could. Sure, people will still go; teams will play hard. Will a tournament, though, be the same, or better for the regular season? As other sports will attest--it's all about the playoffs. 'So long' to the only regular season that has post-season flair.

Now, what about reducing the level of opinion currently in play in determining who plays in the big game? Guess what? First, a tournament will reduce it, not eliminate it (Who gets invited to the tournament and why? Who gets seeded where?) But secondly, WHY BOTHER DOING THAT? Seriously, why do the arguments about SEC vs. Big Ten (and everyone else) rage on year after year? Because every season, like any good drama, leaves so many unanswered questions with a vague, tantalizing hope of solving it next year, or the year after that. But each year just generates new questions as it answers others. Would Michigan have beaten Florida head to head? What about Boise State? Would LSU have won it all if they had gotten to play a tournament? What if Auburn had been chosen to play for the title a few years back when they went undefeated instead of Oklahoma who got embarrassed in the title game? (And Auburn absolutely should have played for the title.) What if, what if, WHAT IF!? Is this kind of 'injustice' and lack of total resolution bad for college fans or the game? Isn't it more like the painful tension for any good ongoing story? Isn't this the exact ambiguity, this unique ambiguity, that mixes with school spirit to make college football so much fun compared to every other sport--even other collegiate sports? (On a side note, the sports media that is currently so bent on complaining about the bowl system are only doing their job. It's literally their job to fan each controversy into flame. Believe me, they will all be harmonizing in lament if the bowl season becomes just another tournament--because that will be the 'controversy' then.)

Which brings me to the final point: "We need to know who the best is!" Really? I know college football is big business now, but college football is still also college football. Those are (by some definition) students on the field. If 'knowing the best' was a goal worth pursuing at all costs, then we should have each team that's matched up in a tournament play several games (or at least for the championship)--like in the NBA--since everyone knows that blowing one game to an inferior team happens routinely. If you want to know the best, that's the path. Do we really think that the best teams never lose a single elimination tournament? But instead of going down that road, let's look at what the afor mentioned "unique" bowl system currently does (aside from usually giving us a settled champion): How many other sports have multiple good teams that end their season with a win in post-season play? Probably as many as have a bowl system. Again, if it was pro ball, who cares about post-season-ending wins for 'losers'? But for college programs, I think this is a major plus. Is the bowl system antiquated? Absolutely. And, like all antiques, that's part of it's charm and a lot of it's value. College football isn't (yet) 100% about beating everyone to be the undisputed champion of all. It's also about (sometimes silly) traditions, songs, ugly mascots, parades, weird ways of clapping, fight songs, conference lore, rivalry games, odd trophies, school pride, nostalgia and formational times in people's lives. Why make college football into the pro game, when we already have the pro game?

So congrats again to Florida and Ohio State for making it to the final game in my favorite big-time sports event--college football--and for adding to the story along the way. And congrats to LSU, Boise State, and Texas Tech for adding to the lore with great and storied farewells. May the stew of college football be as spicy, rich, surprising and messy next year; and, of course, GO GATORS!!!