Snow Shovels and Evangelical Social Justice

(an irritatingly general perspective on evangelical social justice)

Snow Shovel

Four inches of snow showed up today. The HOA (Home Owner’s Association) didn’t. Normally, my neighbors and I can count on them to faithfully plow our driveways before we head out for work in the morning. Not today.

So I made the trip to the local hardware store, shelled out the $15, and bought a snow shovel. By the time I got home, I had the words “Do for others what you would have them do for you (Mt. 7:12)” in my head.

Lovely.

It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t say: “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t have them do to you.” In other words: “Just avoid hurting people. Hold back. Restrain yourself.” That’s too passive for Jesus. For Jesus – and therefore, for the Christian – love is necessarily active.

It isn’t God’s design that the church merely hold back hate – but that we actively help, serve, and love a hurting world – that we do. I’m pretty sure that’s what God means when he says “faith without works is dead (Jms. 2:26).”

So I shoveled my neighbor’s driveway too. Incidentally, I don’t mean to sound noble. According to Jesus, loving your neighbors is probably just supposed to be normal.

Honestly, I had a hard time just wanting to. After all – it’s cold out there.

A huge part of my 9-5 job is developing strategies and thinking strategically. Strategy is great. Strategy ensures that we don’t waste time and effort with needless mechanisms. But here’s the question: When we see a need in the world – when governments fail and other social institutions prove their impotence – are our churches agile enough to respond?

Christians are supposed to be the people entrusted with the power to love honestly and unconditionally.

But maybe we spend too much time waiting on the HOA (“isn’t that someone else’s responsibility?”). Maybe we spend too much time thinking about what snow shovel to buy (“I’m not sure we’re ready to partner with those types of Christians…”). Maybe we’re simply scared of what active love might mean (“after all, it’s pretty cold out there“).

In the mean time the snow keeps piling up and our neighbors find us shockingly un-shocking.

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Why it’s Wrong to Steal finger-paintings (Authenticity: part two)

Art is an expression characterized by authenticity.  Art results from someone who has experienced something real and wants to convey that “something” to you.

Your 3-year old made you a finger-painting.  It’s a picture of the two of you.  It’s in your office.  You proudly show it to your co-workers when they stop by.  You love it.

You have a co-worker.  His son (let’s call him Billy) made a finger-painting for him.  It would be a little creepy if you secretly wished you could display Billy’s finger-painting in your office.  It would be borderline child abuse to actually rip the finger-painting off your co-worker’s cubicle wall, bring it home, hold it up in front of your son and boldly say:

Son, you know I love you.  Do you see this?  This is a finger-painting that Billy made for his Daddy.  Now I want you to make one like it.  Make me something beautiful.”  That would crush your son and expose you as a contemptible villain.

But why is that so wrong?  Because as image-bearers, we instinctively value internal authenticity over external beauty.  The trouble is, that we’re often fooled into thinking that someone else’s authentic expression must also be our authentic expression.  So we imitate.

In church as in finger-painting: beauty follows authenticity – not the other way around.

God will never expect your church to become anything but a more mature version of itself.

(A word to those who serve in leadership in any capacity – regardless of title – please don’t crush those in your care by asking them to re-create someone else’s finger-painting.  I can guarantee that you won’t like the product anyway.  Instead, let the reality of who your church is create authentic expressions worthy of the only  hook on your wall.)

Too Many Churches Are Like 13-Year Old Girls (Authenticity: part one)

The folks behind TOMS shoes are real.  When Sketchers pitifully mimicked TOMS with their BOBS shoe line in 2010, they proved that they were as insecure as 13-year-old girls.  Or just plain old pirates.

At some point, every church says “if we only had _____ .”  Some churches fill in the blank with their projected insecurities (the right staff superstar, better facilities, the next killer strategy, or a more robust budget).  Looking outwardly, these churches resemble a 13-year old girl: believing her self-image will improve if she starves herself, slaps on some makeup, or plucks her eyebrows.  Eventually (sadly), they become a pitiable and heart-breakingly counterfeit version of something God never intended them to be in the first place.

Healthy churches don’t think like that. Healthy churches say “if we only had  _____ ” but they say it focusing inwardly.  They say it because they know who they are – and they clearly understand what God expects of them.  They make a conscious decision to forge their identity by becoming.  They simply want to grow up into themselves.

Saying “if we only had  _____ ” isn’t the problem.  It’s the object of “if we only had _____” that causes many churches to spin out of control.

Here’s the thing: We all want to be a part of a church that is comfortable in its own skin.  It makes little difference whether a church has 70 people or 7,000.  When a church recognizes who they are (understands their needs, and embraces what God expects) the peripheral issues of size, worship style, age range, facility constraints, etc. quickly diminish.

Most of us are fooled to think the issue is have vs. have-not.  In reality, the issue is corporate authenticity vs. corporate insecurity.

Does your church understand who you are?  How do you collectively express that image (through teaching, worship, service, etc.)?

Things Boring Christians Say

I’ve been plowing through David Platt‘s book Radical this week.  Holy Cow.  Somewhere in chapter 6, entitled “American Wealth and a World of Poverty,” it struck me that I’m a pretty boring Christian.  And I’m beginning to think that what keeps me boring just might be sinful.

Those attitudes usually surface when I’m alone.  They’re the quiet under-the-breath asides that are meant for only one audience.  In reading through Platt’s thoughts, another possibility has surfaced: What if these asides aren’t merely inner monologue, but divine dialogueWhat if God is bringing things to light in my life that I want to keep hidden?  And what if those things (“blindspots” as Platt calls them) are the tools that God will use to sanctify me?  Sad thing is – for most of us, a God that wants us to be uncomfortable is probably a major paradigm shift.

Sad.  Boring.  And bored.

If you think about where to drawn the line between conservative, boring, and sinful, here’s some things that boring Christians (like me) often find themselves saying:

I can’t do everything, so I won’t do anything.

I’m just waiting for God to call me to ______ .

If I do ______, then I’ll lose ______ .

It’s just easier to stay where I am.

I’m not ready to ______ – but someday I hope that I will be. 

But I can’t relate to those people.

I’m not sure what will happen. (or its cousin) What if it doesn’t work out?

What’ll happen to my (insert stability idol here) if I ______ .

I think it was Anne Lamott (always a good source for slightly controversial quotes) who said, “Grace will take you as you are, but will refuse to leave you that way.”  And then there’s that nagging Brennan Manning reminder: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians – who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and then walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbeliveable.”

It’s likely you’re too boring.  What keeps you that way?  Does it really all just boil down to fear?  How has God made you aware of (and then hopefully worked with you to remove) your blindspots?  P.S.  If you haven’t bought this book yet, I think you should.  It would be good.

Changing Culture through Prayer

Nearly everyone prays. But I’m learning that most of us miss the point. There is a profound difference between planting a few trees in your back yard and changing the landscape. The difference is asking for great things (not bad) versus creating a culture conducive to great things happening (much better).

The apostle Paul understood this. He encouraged his churches to change their landscape:

Philippians: “I pray that your knowledge may abound more and more in love and in depth of insight so that you may be able to discern what is best” (Philippians 1:9).

Thessalonians: “we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling” (2 Thessalonians 1:11) .

Colossians: “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives” (Colossians 1:9).

Paul isn’t targeting isolated needs. Why? Not because they didn’t have any. But because real change – at least the kind that’s valuable and consistent – comes when the landscape is changed. Because limiting prayers to a task list is like asking God for dating advice – not how to be a better husband. We’re essentially saying: “I don’t really want to be someone better, I just want to do something better.” And that’s just not good enough. Not for the kind of change we need.

There’s a lyric from an Over the Rhine song that gets this: ” You can’t put no band-aid on this cancer / like a twenty-dollar bill for a topless dancer / you need questions forget about the answers.”

Consistent acts of love will flow out of a culture characterized as loving.

Churches will predictably act with bravery and intent when the church culture is characterized as courageous.

Instead of praying for the specific acts – we ought to aim higher. While there’s always a place for specifics (“If any of you is sick…”), I think we often miss the point: large-scale spiritual renewal. Don’t pray for courage. Ask God to make you more courageous. Don’t ask God to help you love a difficult person. Ask Him to make you more loving. Transforming culture – either personally or corporately – will take longer, but will create a sustainable culture.

Brannon’s Pride Warrants Hell

(thoughts spurred from the Rob Bell frenzy this past week)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard about the controversy being stirred up by “Love Wins,” the forthcoming book by pastor-author Rob Bell. Judging from the promo video, Bell is raising a lot of questions surrounding salvation and (more importantly) what kind of God would allow some into heaven while excluding others.

I don’t want to talk about Rob Bell – too much talk already. I want to talk about questioning.

A thought: Questioning God is usually not the problem – The posture from which I question usually is.

Looking to scripture, there are plenty of examples of those who questioned God. While we’re likely to sympathize with men like David, Job, and Solomon, our most profound takeaway from those men needs to be that questioning God ought to be brought under the heading of loving, childlike submission to His fathership.

Example:

David’s lament: “Why have you left me?” (Psalm 22:1) is quickly followed by the confident declaration: “Dominion belongs to the Lord and He rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:28). All in the same Psalm.

Job’s cry: “Why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child?” (Job 2:16) is followed by: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3).

Solomon’s ever-relevant expression: “Meaningless – meaningless – Everything is meaningless” (Ecc.1:2) finds its ultimate resolution in his poignant conclusion: “Now all has been heard; here is the the conclusion of the matter – Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecc. 12:13).

Joseph is my son. He’s five. This morning, I said – Joseph, stop pushing your sister. He’s too young to understand the full implications of why – He just needs to do it. In time (assuming that I’m fathering him well), he’ll gradually connect the dots and develop an understanding. God’s a much better father than I am. He longs to lead His children into fuller understanding of who He is and what He’s like. But questioning Him isn’t where that understanding starts – holy fear is the birthplace of our understanding and eventual mission (cf. Prov. 1:7; Isa. 6:1-13).

Here’s my main concern with “Love Wins:” Questioning without submission often exposes latent pride – at least this holds true in my life. What I would love to see is Bell raising an admittedly hard question – on what basis does a loving God send people to Hell? – and then hide behind scripture for his resolution.

Here’s some questions:

– From what posture do I question God?

– When I don’t get the answer I’m looking for, what is my response?

– Why do I get frustrated with God’s revealed word / will?

– What does my frustration reveal about me?

(a hopefully clarifying after-thought): In my experience, questioning God usually comes from one of two places: pride (the rich young ruler from Mark 10:17-25) or genuine seeking (the disreputable woman from John 4). God richly rewards the second kind of questioning and strongly opposes the first kind. If you’re like me – you’ll consistently find yourself more aware of how frighteningly prideful you can be.

What if we were Children?

Recently, I was told that I’m a loving person.  That surprised me.  I don’t think I’m abnormally loving.  At least not worthy of the remark.  I often struggle with love.

In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard writes: “Young children have no sense of wonder. They bewilder well, but few things surprise them. All of it is new to young children, after all, and equally gratuitous. Their parents pause at the unnecessary beauty of an ice storm coating the trees; the children look for something to throw. ”

The point: Childrens’ imaginations have far higher expectations than ours.  They are expecting beauty.  Grace is normal.  For children, extravagance is a given.  Sometimes it’s almost as if my son Joseph (5) wants to grab me by the face and say “Daddy, of course pigs can fly,” or “haven’t you ever seen a polka-dotted unicorn with propellers?  What’s the matter with you?” Excellent question.

I’m wondering if it’s the same thing in the way with church.

Here’s the question (and I think Annie Dillard’s point too):  Is the reality that we’re so quick to affirm the nobility of normal acts of love indicative of the fact that we have lost our sense of childlike expectancy?  Instead, what if our churches were so childlike that love, joy, peace, etc. were all “equally gratuitous?” What if love didn’t surprise us?  Maybe our imaginations for the once-alluring bride of Christ have been so drastically tamed that she has become predictably common (shockingly un-shocking).  

She is beautiful – make no mistake – but not surprisingly.  She’s always beautiful.  And we should expect her to be so.  But in our cynicism, we have lost our ability to see it.  Perhaps our wonderment is a sign that we’ve fallen out of love.

for we have sinned and grown old – and our Father is younger than we.”  – Chesterton