Friday, September 24, 2010

What is our Claim to Fame?

It's a question that has been on my mind quite a bit recently. As Christians, what are we known for in the world? The Salvation Army is known for helping the poor. The NRA is known for lobbying on behalf of American gun owners. What is the church known for?
A friend and I had a talk with a local man the other day. He was asking about the crusades, and all the other wars that Christians have advocated for over the years. I explained that none of that reflects the actual teachings of Jesus. I told him how beautiful those teaching are, how he unequivocally demands we love our enemies and bless those who curse us. How we are to forgive even when wronged 70 by 7 times.
He looked confused for a moment, and asked "but who actually does that?"
Now, I recognize that all over the world and throughout all of history faithful men and and women have followed the words of Jesus with their whole heart. Yet his question has some truth in it- the reality is that whether you ask Muslims, Hindus, Jews, or modern secular westerners, what defines the church, you will probably not get a pretty answer. It was the great Hindu leader Ghandi who said that he loved our Christ, but was surprised how different Jesus was than his modern followers.
I was listening to a teaching by Danny Silk from Bethel Church this week, and he said something that brought this train of thought back to the forefront. He said "The church is supposed to be famous for loving, but we are actually famous for judging." And that hits the nail on the head. The American church has, without invitation, taken up the role as America's moral police force. If you want to find the harshest, coldest statements about Muslims, gays, democrats or even other church leaders, look no further. We have publicly called our enemies evil and demonic, while no one else in society would dare use such terms. We have cornered the market on criticism.
Now, take a step back. Picture yourself in the days of Jesus. You have grown up in a poor family, you were never religiously educated, and you never felt worthy to go to the synagogue to pray. Besides, those religious people wear nice robes you can't afford, and the big words they use just make you feel dumb. So instead you do what your friends do. You steal sometimes, you get drunk sometimes, you sleep around sometimes. Then you hear about Jesus. An old friend you know who was a tax collector tells you that Jesus hangs out with people like you, and that he talks about a God who is near to you. That even the prostitutes like to be around them, and he treats them with respect. Soon, you hear that he is coming to your village, and all you want to do is to see him. Then he comes, the crowds around him, and he looks at you, YOU, of all people, and he smiles. And he says "The Kingdom of God is with the poor in spirit," and though you aren't sure fully what he meant, you feel poor in spirit, and are pretty sure he was talking directly to you...
Now, as this first century young man or woman, where would you go if you wanted to be criticized, judged, and told how bad you are? Where would you go to find God?
The reality is the Church for some reason feels that if we don't scream about how wrong everyone else is, then no one will ever know. The reality is, when we define ourselves as being against sin, we have already joined the wrong team. We have joined the dark side. We have set ourselves against our Christ, who, according to his own words, judges no one.
I love the church. I have faith that she will step into her calling; the calling to serve, to bless, to love and show mercy, to heal and to deliver. And that she will one day be known by those who talk about her the way Jesus wanted her to be known- "By this they will know that you are my disciples, by your love one for another." Imagine a people in the earth famous for loving, for loving EVERYONE with kindness and grace. That would a people that bore some resemblance to Jesus.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Fear: The Greatest Threat to our "Way of Life"

Fear is a powerful thing. You see, when you get scared, your adrenaline kicks in- you go into instinct mode. Fight or flight. Let me put it another way- when you are scared, you cease functioning like a human. Humans have complex minds and emotions- humans are spiritual beings. Humans can throw wonderful altruistic causes to aid other humans that they don't even know. Animals don't do any of that. Animals prize survival. When we get scared, all those values and principles that separate us from the rest of creation begin to crumble. Fear turns us into animals.
The reality is, wounded people are more prone to be fearful. A person who gets mugged will have a hard time walking through an alley afterwards. A person who gets robbed is more likely to lock his door at night.
Since 9/11, America has been a wounded nation. On that day, something worse than what anyone could have imagined took place. And as a result, people have allowed fear to take control of their imaginations, and when fear gets the reins, it will always make the worst case scenario look like the most likely outcome.
Sadly, Muslims both in America and around the world have been the victim of those worst case scenario nightmares. Whether they are villagers in Pakistan who have been wrongly assassinated by CIA drone planes, or Arab Americans who have been treated poorly by neighbors, ordinary Muslims have paid a toll for the actions of extremists. That is partly a sad side-effect of human nature, a woeful commonality among all pages of history. But what honestly disturbs me is that in today's America the message of fear, whether it be by politicians or in sermons or in forwarded emails that have no basis in reality, has been popularly championed by those who follow Jesus.
The Gospel of Jesus is the ultimate challenge to our natural survival instincts. He commands us not to worry about the things that inevitably concern us most- what we will eat, what we will wear, whether or not tomorrow will bring enough to live off of. More than that, he tells you that if you want to follow him, you need to let go of your right to be scared of dying. Our fear of death reveals how little we believe the promises he gave us.
Ultimately, people who say they believe in the Bible should have no business in the fear industry. We are a people who should be marked by hope. We are a people who should be defined by our commitment to love and bless all peoples even the face of suffering. The early church faced a nightmare we can't imagine- a Roman Emperor who burned Christians as human candles for party decorations- and yet not a verse of fear can be found in the New Testament. You see, those people believed in the prize they were offered. Do we?
If no one can take anything from you, then no one can be your enemy. The first followers of Jesus were an enemy-less people, a people who walked in the power of God's presence and who changed whole cities with their message. However, if we choose to let fear inform our worldview, it will always make us less then we were created to be.