Monday, May 20, 2013

Thoughts on a Transient Church

As a member of Clifton Baptist Church, a church that is admittedly transient, I have often thought about the best way our church can approach the seemingly constant influx and outflow of people.  Every church has its own cultural climate and context, and often these factors can create an environment where people are coming and going quite frequently.  So if you are currently attending a church and the transient nature of the membership is bothersome or discouraging, let me offer an observation that helped me reorient how I think about my church and ministry.

Side note: If your church is transient due to poor leadership or sinful behavior in the church then what I’m about to say probably won’t be very helpful.  I mainly have churches in mind that are in a city or context where people naturally come and go as “way of life” situations or “ministry calling” pulls them away.

We’re a Family

The language in the New Testament consistently invokes the language of family, namely “brothers and sisters”.  The idea behind this is that Christians are siblings with God as our Father.  This theological theme encompasses why we should confront a brother who is in sin or lift up a sister who needs encouragement: we love and care for our family.  But how, you may ask, should this frame our view of transience?

Serving for 6+ years with children and now teenagers has brought me to a unique experience: watching those who I first met when they were children graduate from High School.  I experienced something youth pastors must feel annually and parents feel less frequently but more deeply: proud joy mingled with nostalgic sorrow.  All the times mentoring, praying, studying, and laughing are coming to a close.  The proud smile coupled with misty eyes as they cross a stage and are suddenly more of a peer than a student is but a small reflection of the paradoxical feeling within.

The ebb and flow of life makes the moment of transition almost magical.  When did it happen?  When did they stop running around laughing uncontrollably as you played games with them on a playground and start taking their life and faith seriously?  As this moment takes you by surprise you can’t accurately describe the feeling.  You are proud of them, happy because they are happy, but there is a unique sadness that only wells up during these times of jettison.  This is, after all, what you have been working toward.  And yet, part of you wants to stop the clock, fly out the window beneath a star filled sky, and runaway to Neverland, keeping the joy and laughter going on forever.  But reality slowly settles on you, like a scratchy blanket you reluctantly get used to, and you know they must go and that things cannot go back to what they were.

As this realization landed on me, at first I was filled with a great sense of dread.  What’s the point?  Every year I will have to say goodbye to another set of students, always feeling like a part of my family is being ripped from my presence.  But then, suddenly, I realized, this is what families are meant to do.  You invest, discipline, sacrifice, love, serve, and work toward the day when the baby throwing food in your face is shaking your hand like an adult and leaving your side.  And if the church is a family, and if part of the duty of the church is to send workers out into the world, then we, like so many parents, can proudly wipe tears from our eyes as those we have grown to love and cherish leave us. We may not be able to steal our churches and friends away to some Christian-Neverland, where ministry, service, and love go on forever… But one day our King will return and take us to a Forever-land, where joy and laughter will echo in the hills and mountains on top of new stories and smiles into eternity.

What now?

As this thought has continued to penetrate my heart, like a new pair of glasses that come with tissues for joyful-sorrow-filled-tears, I can look at my transient church with a newfound sense of purpose and wonder.  God, in his glorious plan and love, has given us a family larger and greater than we could fathom, and it comes with many unique joys, privileges, responsibilities, and sorrows.  A parent would never abandon their responsibilities or stunt their child to keep them from growing up and moving away because they love their family and know they are working toward something far greater.  We also, out of love and an eternal purpose, should not abdicate the same responsibility as the family of God.  We meet to part and part to meet, indeed.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

God creates evil? Q&A

I was asked a few questions during my interaction about God and evil in Isaiah 45:7

1. Couldn't god find a better way to bring about good than via evil? (Or, if you prefer, can you get creative and at least contemplate ways that appear, on the very surface at least, better?)

These types of questions are difficult because they entertain the idea of a perfect being while suggesting that said being is doing things imperfectly.  I honestly don’t know if he could do it better because the existence of evil draws our attention beyond the here and now and thrusts into ultimate questions which in turn makes us consider eternity.  The very existence of a non-temporal God and our temporal existence has built into it imperfection and dependency which leaves the capacity for evil.  And for some reason, unexplained to man, God’s plan included a damaged creation being redeemed through the death of his son.  Just because we can’t conceive of an explanation doesn’t mean there isn’t one.  And honestly, an infinite being explaining his infinite perfect plan to finite imperfect creatures means by default we won’t fully understand because our very nature is opposed to complete infinite exhaustive understanding.  So the absence of an explanation doesn’t necessarily prove anything, other than what we should assume to be the case given the nature of an ultimate perfect plan and our limited imperfect abilities.

2. Doesn't the process of creating a negative and a positive equal a zero? 

Not if the ultimate sum of all things is good.  The evil actions of men are finite and temporal, God’s plan is eternal.  In other words, his actions and will are going to bring about eternal incorruptible good while the evil intentions and actions of men bring about temporal evil and are part of an ultimate plan for ultimate good.  So, Christ being killed was temporary and evil, but it brought about a greater, ultimate, and incorruptible good: the salvation of many.

Then I was asked why the buck stopped at us and why didn’t God deliver the girls in Cleveland.  Well, if he brings about all things, then God is the one who ultimately delivered them from the hands of the oppressor.  Now, the question remains, why didn’t God do it before they were raped?  The short of it is, we don’t know, and we don’t always get a clear 1:1 like we do in the story of Joseph or the death of Jesus.  Maybe it will increase awareness in the area and keep a greater number of girls safe from abduction and rape?  Maybe it will be so shocking and terrifying to the public that someone considering doing something similar decides it’s better not to?  Again, we see things on a temporal scale while God sees a big and ultimate picture.  So maybe the good never comes in our lifetime or is even tangible.  Maybe someone reads this discussion or those like it and finds hope in their suffering knowing there is some underlying current of good in their awful circumstance and they face it with hope rather than despondency and bitterness?    But ultimately, I don’t know.  Again, the Gospel shows me that the worst thing ever brought about something wonderful, so I can, as Paul says, grieve with hope.

And to clarify, my point was not that we need God to tell us evil exists.  My point was more of a philosophical flipping of the coin.  Say there is no God, no absolute measurement, nothing supernatural, nothing above the natural realm, then how do we claim metaphysical realities like evil exist?  How do we grieve with hope?  How do we maintain in one hand that evil exists, and in the other, provide hope for the damaged, the suffering, and the down trodden?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

God creates evil?

I was recently pressed with the question about a passage in Isaiah 45...

Isaiah 45:7
I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all

The best place I can go when dealing with this passage in Isaiah, which at face value is admittedly challenging, is the story of Joseph. Joseph’s brothers commit a heinous crime against him, and would have killed him if not for Reuben. Their intentions are later described as evil in what is, in my opinion, the clearest passage for reconciling human responsibility and God’s sovereignty. Genesis 50:20 says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”(ESV) So, as best as I can understand and explain it, the intentions of man and the intentions of God run parallel. They intended destruction, God intended restoration. The intended evil of Joseph’s brothers brought about, ironically, their salvation. God’s plan was ultimate and good, their plan was temporal and evil. Now, they are not let off the hook just because God brought about something good from their evil because their intentions are described as evil over and against the good intentions of God. In other words, there is no shrugging of the shoulders, “all’s well that ends well”, because Joseph maintains the right judgment that his brothers intentions were evil. Now, in the bigger picture, this event with Joseph leads to the enslavement of Israel by the Egyptians, an evil act, which leads to their deliverance, a good act. God even claims that he raised up Pharaoh to show His power and his name proclaimed. Temporal evil running parallel to ultimate good is a theme that runs throughout the entire Bible, the statement by Joseph just makes it about as clear as any. This theme has to be considered when you read a passage like Isaiah.

So, we look at incredibly heinous behavior of people today, like your example of children’s hands being chopped off, and we bristle at the idea of God being in control of that. But a Christian can look at it and say, “Evil plans exist alongside the good and ultimate plan of God in a way we only get a glimpse of in the story of Joseph. But he is also a wrathful judge who has promised to make all things new and punish those who practice evil and has called us to deliver the oppressed from the hands of evil men.” Christians can both hope for the ultimate future but also have reason to fight evil now. See, we have a resource and a measurement that doesn’t make sense of evil in the moment, but is the temporal and ultimate solvent for it. Without an ultimate judge, god, or measurement, how can you even maintain that an act is objectively evil? Because you don’t like it? Because it hurts someone else? These are merely preferential in the absence of some form of absolute measurement. I would rather trust in the one who has shown he can use temporal evil for ultimate good than believe in space + time + matter = that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

The central claim of Christianity is that God used the most evil event in history, the slaying of the innocent God-man, to bring about the salvation of sinners. So anyone familiar with Christianity is familiar with the greatest parallel of evil intentions running alongside the good intentions of God. If I believe in the claims made in the Gospels then I can trust God means good in all things, no matter how heinous they might be. So yes, He creates calamity, because it is by the greatest calamity that I’ve been saved.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Christians, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men

Patrick Schreiner recently wrote a blog about an on going discussion on the topic of whether or not Christians should watch the popular AMC series Mad Men.  I found it to be a helpful and thought provoking discussion as it compared Mad Men to another popular AMC series, Breaking Bad.  As an avid fan of Breaking Bad, and a person who gave up Mad Men after the second or third episode of the second season, I wrote the following...

I think the primary difference between a show like Mad Men and Breaking Bad is that within the narrative of Breaking Bad you have characters that personify the tension of good versus evil. Jesse Pinkman is the voice of consequence as he embodies the guilt and shame that Walter White should be feeling. Hank is attempting to stop the infamous Heisenberg, Saul is the token bottom feeder, and all this within and around the incredible story of arc of Walter White transforming (“chemistry is transformation”) into the villain (“I won”). Walter becomes the one you fear, Jesse the one you hope for redemption, and you reluctantly cheer for Hank to slay the mighty dragon of blue crystal cave. It has a dynamic ebb and flow of character development that accurately represents the tension and war of dark and light we all sense in the world around us.

In Mad Men, everyone is just statically bad; nobody is having the inner or outward dialogue of self-reflection. I watched Season 1 and got two episodes into Season 2 before giving up on it, and it always came across as expecting the viewer to make the decision about the characters. I was constantly saying, after each episode, "Well that was terrible. Not a single character is on an arc of redemption or quest for good.” You just end up feeling bad for them, which is a subtle message of victimization, “Oh these poor people, ruining their lives and marriages through selfish ambition and pride.” I didn’t stop watching it as a moral high ground decision; I stopped watching it because it made me feel depressed and dark after each episode. Perhaps that is the subtle genius of the show, in what was already eloquently put, “Mad Men follows the standard narrative of our ad-addled culture, which says that if you dress something up enough, people will buy anything–even things that are morally depraved and terrifying.