Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lent Should be a Time to Reflect on the Vulnerability of Life

This past Wednesday marked the beginning of the Season of Lent. There are many practices Christians carry out during this holy season; practices such as fasting and praying that are meant to draw us closer to God as we reflect on the last days of Jesus on this earth. But often we neglect these practices, and I think we may be particularly inclined to neglect these practices during times of stress and uncertainty like we are facing in our current economic situation.

Yet, now is the time that we should be considering the Season of Lent as a period in which we reflect on the vulnerability of life, as represented in Jesus’ last days on earth. The time of Lent should be a period in which we remind ourselves that life is full of uncertainty, as well as the hope of new life God offers to us.

We sometimes shy away from talking about the uncertainty and vulnerability of life, however, for when we do we think we are being distrustful and even faithless. Yet, the reality of life is that it is full of uncertainties. Indeed, to put it simply, there is a certainty to life’s uncertainties. Problems will come upon us, whether these are caused by our own choices or the actions of others and some of these problems can challenge our faith significantly.

There are several questions I think most of us who believe in God ask whenever we face life’s difficulties. Where is God during uncertain times? How should we view life’s changes? What role does faith play during life’s changes? How do we pray through life’s uncertainties? How do we remain faithful during these times? What is God’s answer to life’s tragedies?

These are just a sampling of questions we may ask, some for which we can at least find a plausible answer, but others for which we may never find the solution. But they are important questions for us to ask, and asking them does not make us any less faithful in our belief in God than not asking them. In fact, I would venture to say that if we reject asking these questions, as if we are too pious to do so, then we are not being true to the one who faced his own doubts and fears on the night he was arrested.

As Christians, we are particularly guilty of assuming that all things should work out for us. And, when we and others encounter life’s struggles and tragedies, instead of asking and struggling with deeper theological questions with sheer honesty, we often voice standard, but hollow expressions about life and its uncertainties. We say things like, “God has everything under control,” “Everything will work out for the good,” “Jesus will take care of you,” and “God is teaching you something through this.”

These may seem to be helpful words of encouragement and advice, for they do express some level of truth and offer some hope. However, they also symbolize the wrong assumption we have that because we are Christian, things should work out for us. “Come to Jesus, and he will make your life better,” we often hear and say.

The reality is, however, that life is uncertain for all of us; believer and non-believer. Indeed, as followers of Jesus, why should we assume that our lives should be any less tragic than his own? This is certainly not to say that we should be looking for suffering, as I think some often do. But we must be reminded that Jesus, the one we follow and the one we worship, whose last days we remember during Lent, suffered real evil, real pain, and real death. This should always remind us that suffering is a part of who we are as humans, and even God cannot always relieve our suffering.

I realize that orthodox Christianity has traditionally believed in a God who can do anything; a God who is all powerful. But when I reflect on the life of Jesus, I am inclined to believe that the traditional view of God does not seriously consider the vulnerability of human existence as represented in Jesus’ tragic death. While we often speak about the sovereignty of God in terms of God’s omnipotence, perhaps we need to think more about God’s sovereignty in terms of God’s love; a love through which God makes it possible for God to experience our human pain.

During this particular Season of Lent, when we are constantly hearing of the economic struggles that will have an impact on all of us, and when we continue to see the suffering that happens in our world, let us be reminded that there are no simple theological answers to the problem of human pain, and providing simplistic answers is not being true to our faith. Rather, let us reflect on the suffering of Jesus as emblematic of our human struggle, as well as that event through which God has and continues to experience our sufferings.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Christians should Balance Freedom in Christ with Unity in Christ

Individualism and freedom are hallmarks of Western society. In fact, we Americans are very proud of our freedom. We want to be free and independent to make our own choices about how we live our lives, how we make decisions, who we support in political elections, and free to choose what religion to follow, or to choose not to follow a religion at all. Freedom is a value we should cherish.

Even when we talk about the gospel, we speak about being free in Christ; free from sin and the law and its demands. In fact, the central idea of salvation, that God has bestowed God’s grace on us, is based on the idea that this is a free gift, given not because we have earned it, but because God is gracious towards us. We are indeed free in Christ.

Yet, although the gospel message is one of freedom, we may often take individualism and freedom to a misguided extreme. Certainly individual Christians are free to hear and follow God as God so leads them. However, believers must also take into account that individual freedom may at times contravene Christian unity, which can bring harm to the faith of other believers.

The Apostle Paul, who was certainly the most ardent proponent of the freedom offered in Christ, was nevertheless concerned that Christian freedom find a home within a community of faith, in which we are members of the same body of Christ. Indeed, in reading Paul’s letters we find that he constantly sought to balance Christian freedom with Christian unity.

As evidenced by the letters which he wrote, Paul frequently dealt with issues being raised in the churches across Asia Minor; issues that endangered Christian unity. One particular congregation that received most of his attention was the church at Corinth. This church brought many questions to Paul, and Paul sought to answer these concerns through two epistles that were eventually selected to be a part of the New Testament.

One particular issue that Paul addresses is the eating of food that had been offered to idols. Eating such food was a common practice in the ancient world, but in Corinth, questions must have been raised concerning whether or not believers could eat the meat that was used in such rituals and still remain faithful to Christ. Thus, this church turned to their beloved apostle for answers.

But if we read the passage from 1 Corinthians chapter eight carefully, we will soon discover that Paul does not see this issue as the basic problem. Indeed, Paul only uses the issue of eating to point to a deeper problem, one of arrogance and misguided freedom. It seems that some in Corinth thought themselves to be so much more spiritually knowledgeable than others that they thought they were freer than others to choose to eat the meat offered to idols.

Their rationale might go something like this: “We know that idols do not exist, for God is the only living deity. Therefore, since we have greater spiritual knowledge, we know that the meat sacrificed to these idols is only meat, since the idols are not real. Therefore, since we have this great knowledge, and because we are free in Christ, we can eat the meat that is sacrificed to these idols without defiling ourselves.”

Yet, there is a fundamental problem with their logic: Does their act of freedom demonstrate any faithfulness to God through whom believers have their existence as members of Christ’s body? In other words, does their freedom in Christ allow them to do that which might be harmful to the body of Christ?

Paul’s implicit answer to the Corinthians is very akin to what he makes explicit other places: Freedom in Christ is not an opportunity for the flesh (see Rom. 6:1-2; Gal. 5:13). When we are given freedom in Christ, it does not mean that we can live the way we want to live. Despite our emphasis on our individual relationships to God, we are always and forever members of the body of Christ, and to a great extent we are responsible to other members of that body.

As Christians we do have freedom in Christ. Yet, freedom must always be guided by love; love for God and love for others. The problem for us is that we do not consider how our actions will affect other believers, and we often disregard their best interests. Some of our actions can be so serious as to alienate others from their own faith in Christ. We need to re-examine our actions and form them in ways that build up the body of Christ through loving relationships with one another.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

“Would Jesus Carry a Gun to Church?”

The Arkansas Legislature is considering a bill that would lift a ban on guns being carried into houses of worship. At the time I am writing these words, the Associated Press reports that the Arkansas House has passed the bill and that the measure would be heading to the Senate for a vote.

Growing up in rural Arkansas, I have come to accept the plethora of guns there are in the state. My dad and my brother are hunters and I have many friends who are hunters. I don’t own a gun myself, but I do respect the right others have to own guns; although I do think we ought to have strict gun laws. But despite how one feels about individuals owning guns, the bill that is now moving through the lawmaking body of Arkansas raises significant theological problems.

Several years ago, there was a trend among young Christians to ask this question, “What would Jesus do?” This question, shortened to WWJD, became a slogan that represented a way of asking about how we should behave in response to Jesus’ behavior. This is good theology, for the question centers on Jesus as the example we are to follow. So, here is another question related to what the lawmakers in Arkansas are considering, “Would Jesus carry a gun to church?”

I think most of us would certainly answer no to this question. But the issue over guns in church raises a larger question about our infatuation with violence that is directly contrary to Jesus’ message and life of non-violence.

There are two significant stories from the life of Jesus that I believe speak to this issue. Both stories derive from the arrest and trial of Jesus, a point at which, if he were to take up the weapon of violence, he certainly would have done so.

In Mark’s telling of the arrest of Jesus, those who come to seize him carry clubs and swords. Jesus’ question about their armaments is very telling and theologically rich for those of us who desire to utilize weapons for our own security and protection. He asks, “Have you come out with swords and clubs?” (Mark 14:48).

The implication of Jesus’ question to them is that he needs not the weapons of violence, for his protection and security is found with God. In other words, though he could have gathered a small army of rebels to fight, and indeed even a legion of angels, he rejected not only the use violence, but also the system that promotes violence.

This idea is made even clearer when Jesus is brought before Pilate, particularly in how the Gospel of John tells the story. In response to Pilate’s questioning about his being a king, Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). While we take this to mean that Jesus was informing Pilate that his kingdom is from heaven, which is true, it more likely means that his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world; kingdoms like Rome that hold imperial power through violence. Indeed, Jesus goes on to imply that if his kingdom was like Rome, then his followers would be fighting for him.

Both of these stories reflect Jesus’ radical ideas about the virtue of non-violence that epitomized his central message. At his arrest and his trial, events that would have triggered a violent reaction from most of us, Jesus rejected the use of weapons and he rejected the system of violence that characterized the society in which he lived. Instead, he placed his full trust in God’s loving care, despite the fact that he would be crucified in an act of state sponsored violence.

And this should cause us to rethink how we live in a world where violence is accepted as necessary. If we claim to be Christian, then this means we should at least seek to follow Christ. And, in following Jesus, we should at least pay close attention to what was central to his life and teachings: Non-violence. As followers of Christ, we must reject our attraction to violence, even when we think it will provide us security.

It seems likely that the bill being considered will pass. More than just bad policy, this decision is a hasty and tragic response to our need to feel safe everywhere we go. If the bill passes, however, I would hope that faithful Christians and faithful churches would reject the need to arm themselves, reject the attempt to create false security, and most importantly, reject violence and the system that promotes it as necessary.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Authentic Discipleship is Both Costly and Liberating

This past Wednesday, February 4, would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 103rd birthday. Bonhoeffer’s story is familiar to many; a story about his resistance to a Hitler controlled Germany and his participation in the plot to assassinate the Nazi leader. It was this public resistance and criticism that eventually led to Bonhoeffer’s execution on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39.

Yet, even though his story is familiar to many, it is his writings that still serve to penetrate our hearts and minds concerning what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Perhaps his most popular book is The Cost of Discipleship, a deep and challenging assessment of what it truly means to be a disciple of Christ.

It is in this book that we find the author state very powerfully that grace cannot be cheap. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.” Instead, Bonhoeffer coins an almost paradoxical phrase to describe the experience of salvation and discipleship: costly grace. In his words, costly grace is “costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

In the Gospels, we find Jesus calling those who would become his followers. In the first chapter of Mark’s story, Jesus calls two sets of brothers, all of whom are fishermen. He calls them to leave their nets, to leave their families, and to follow him. In this story, and other call stories, we discover the tension that Bonhoeffer points out as that which epitomizes the gospel: Discipleship is both costly and liberating.

When Jesus comes upon these fishermen they are doing what they normally do on any given day; they are fishing. Indeed, this was their life; this was their existence. Fishing was what was routine and comfortable for them. While their occupation as fishermen was hard work that brought many challenges, it is what they knew and it is who they were.

Yet, when Jesus calls them, he calls them to leave their lives as they know them. He calls them to turn away from their normal existence and to let go of what they know best. How costly is such a decision?

While leaving fishing may not seem big to us, let’s take into account what Jesus demands from another. A rich man approached Jesus wanting to know how he might gain eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the greatest commandments; to love God and to love others. Jesus then told the man, “Sell all your possessions and give to the poor.” At this demand, the man turned away, refusing to accept the cost.

We must be careful not to distance ourselves too much from this story. In calling us to follow him, Jesus always demands that we relinquish our claims; our claims of independence, our claims to security and freedom, our claims to what we own, and our claims to live our lives as we see fit. To answer the call of discipleship is always costly. If it is not, it is not discipleship.

Yet, even as we speak of discipleship as costly, we must also view it as liberating. The call to the two sets of brothers to leave what they know, what gave them comfort and security, is at the same time a call to find liberation and hope in something that is transformative. While their lives of fishing certainly gave them a sense of normality, they were unknowingly missing what authentic life with God was like. Jesus’ call for them to leave their nets and follow him was a call to embrace a new liberating existence.

When Jesus calls us to follow, and when we respond to his call, we are responding to and accepting a way of life that is both costly and liberating. And only when we understand, accept, and welcome this tension, can we truly live out authentic discipleship that is, in the words of Bonhoeffer, “exclusive to his person.”

But to accept the call of Jesus to follow him, we must relinquish what holds us back from the true gospel and what prevents us from becoming authentic disciples of Jesus. We must count the cost of discipleship, and we must be willing to move from our status quo existence of comfort, security, and that which we know as normal, to embrace the life changing, world transforming, and liberating power of the gospel. This is authentic discipleship that is both costly and liberating.