The Society Gap

A few days ago, I was having a conversation with my uncle in which he mentioned that Christians keep at an arms length away from society.  I started thinking about that comment.  It kept me up that night as I mulled it over.  For some reason, it didn’t quite sit right with me, but I wasn’t sure why.  And then I realized.

We talk about being “in the world, but not of the world,” based on Jesus’ words in John 17:14-17.  But I think we focus more on the latter half of that phrase — “not of” — more than we focus on the fact that we are, indeed, very much “in” the world, and I believe we are called to be right in the middle of society.

Why?

First, if we look at the life of Jesus, we find Him in all the places we would tend to avoid.  With Samaritans (Arabs?), tax collectors (crooked lawyers?), lepers (AIDS patients?), the demon-possessed (mentally ill?), and prostitutes.  Jesus didn’t keep an arms length away.  There was no society gap that His love didn’t cross, no barrier that wasn’t swept away by His indiscriminate tidal wave of compassion.

Second, we consider that we must separate ourselves from society in order to distinguish ourselves as upright, moral people.  But truthfully, Christians did not invent the society gap.  There are thousands of society gaps created by racists, sexists, politicians.  All of them want to separate themselves as wheat from the chaff.  Nobody wants to be associated with people groups that they consider in any way inferior; everyone is trying to make some sort of statement by their separatism.  People are very used to being excluded from various groups, and Christian separatism is no different to them.  We think we can make people change their behavior by not associating with them in any legitimate capacity until they conform, but it doesn’t work that way.  Instead, they simply think, “Another group who thinks they’re too good for me.  Whatever, I don’t need them.”  We want to be known by our reputations of high moral character — but Jesus said we would be known by our love.  Jesus wasn’t concerned with His reputation.  In fact, in many circles, He had a pretty crummy reputation, but He didn’t bother defending Himself to those who misjudged Him.  The outcasts who truly encountered Him were forever changed, and that was enough for Him.  It was worth the risk to His reputation.  You see, we think distancing ourselves from society will make us stand out, but it doesn’t, because everyone else thinks that as well.  Here’s the paradox: if we want to look different from the world, we have to plunge headfirst into it.

Why don’t we?

I think in a lot of ways, it’s far easier to distance ourselves from society than to wade through the gray areas of unconditional love.  You see, love is messy.  Really messy.  It gets into all these complicated issues of accepting people vs. condoning behavior, loving the sinner and hating the sin, etc., etc.

Do we throw a baby shower for a baby born out of wedlock?

Can we enjoy hanging out with an alcoholic?  Or do they have to be a project, a charity case?

How many times do we let someone mess up before they’re a lost cause and we cut them off?

I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions.  They’re hard questions.  But I think we need to confront and work through the tough stuff instead of brushing it under the rug and pretending it’s not there.

Dean Barham from Woodmont Hills church of Christ once spoke on the parable of the sower, introducing a new twist I had never thought of before: the Sower didn’t plant His seed carefully.  He scattered it at random, without concern for what kind of ground it would land on.  It didn’t matter if it landed among the thorns.  It just mattered that He sowed it.  And it’s the same way with us.  We can’t be selective about who we love.  We’re not called to invest in the ones with the most potential.  Sometimes we just need to scatter the seed of Christ’s love without worrying about where it falls or how it’s received.  Really, isn’t that what unconditional love is all about anyway?  You can’t rein in the radical love of Christ.  Sometimes — no, all the time — we just need to let it spill out onto everyone around us, whether that’s buying a stranger’s lunch or being the only one to have compassion on the preacher who was fired for embezzling.  When justified scathing judgment is hemming him in, maybe a bit of unexpected, undeserved love is what will bring him to his knees.

Not only is it easier to distance ourselves, but it’s also a great deal safer.  As much as we talk about surrendering to God, I’m pretty sure that very few of us have actually surrendered our reputations.  A lot of it we excuse by saying, “I can’t be seen hanging out with this person because it will damage my witness!”  To you — and to myself, because I’m guilty too — I’ll say the following: first, that’s just an excuse.  That’s you wanting to be in control of what people think of you.  You say that you’re trying to protect Jesus’ reputation, but He didn’t care about protecting it, and He doesn’t need you to protect it.  Second, if you’re worried that people won’t be able to see a difference between you and the world, you’re probably not living right yourself.  If you’re all out for Jesus, it won’t matter who you hang out with.  They’ll see the difference.  They’ll know.

We also want to protect ourselves and our kids from the influence of the world.  With kids, I’m a little more understanding, because they’re like little sponges.  But if it’s about you, forget the fear and get your head in the game.  You might be introduced to some new ideas and difficult questions outside the security of your Christian bubble.  Good.  You can’t find truth if you never have to look for it, and you’ll never get answers if you never ask questions.  Being in the world turns theoretical discussions into practical ones and makes you think about why you believe what you believe.  It’s like being pushed out of the nest — it might be a little uncomfortable and a little scary, but that’s how you learn to fly.

What do we do about it?

Living in the world, in the gray areas, takes a lot of faith.  It’s not all black and white out there, and like I said, love can be really messy and really awkward.  So the first thing you have to do is rely heavily on Jesus.  You have to trust Him with your reputation and trust Him to guide you through the murky waters of messy love.  You have to feel your way through when to confront in love and when to let go in love, when to speak in love and when to be silent in love.

Pray a lot.  Love a lot.  Live a lot.  Read about the life of Jesus over and over.

See people as people, as beloved children of God.  We all have a common denominator; we’re all broken and we all need Jesus.  Some people may not be receptive right away, but they still need Him.  He loves them, and so should you.

He breathed the same life into that struggling addict that He breathed into you.

He counts the tears of the “slut” who cries herself to sleep trying to find acceptance.

He carefully formed each little finger and toe of baby Hitler.

No one is an accident.  No one is a mistake.

If nothing else, we must love people because they are His creation of whom He said, “It is good.”

And maybe as we start to strip away our own pride and complacency and see a lost, broken, hurting world, rather than a bad, sinful, malevolent world…

…maybe love and compassion will take over and the society gap will begin to close.

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Homelessness: A Conflicted Stream of Consciousness

There’s a man just to my right.

He’s not in line.

Just awkwardly standing there, out of place.

His head is in his hands.

He is invisible to those around him.

They don’t see him.

Or they pretend not to.

Is he…crying?

I steal an awkward glance, hoping we don’t make eye contact.

If he saw me looking at him, he might try to talk to me.

And I wouldn’t know what to say.

He doesn’t look normal.

He might not know how to talk.

He raises his head briefly and makes a sort of sobbing sound.

He’s obviously mentally ill.

No one else is transparent enough to display their emotions in public.

Tears mingle with thick yellow strings of snot.

Like a crying child.

I am repulsed.

At the snot.

At the awkwardness.

At the circumstances that so cruelly deposited this man here on the sidewalk.

If a normal person were crying, wouldn’t someone do something?

Yet no one does anything.

Is he even a person?

I wonder if he played with friends on the playground in elementary school and if he remembers it.

Did he graduate high school?

He limps away.

There’s a pizza box that someone has set on the top of a trash can.

He opens it hopefully.

It’s empty.

I watch as he disappears down the sidewalk.

And I…I’m buying a movie ticket.

Dear God, isn’t there anything anyone can do?

Love as Defined by Culture…Love as Defined by Christ

A few days ago I was chatting with a friend about love.  Being college girls in our early twenties, just a year away from graduation and still without prospects like we were promised at freshman orientation, we spend a lot of our time discussing it.  Probably too much.  This particular time, we were discussing the difficulty of seeing a long-ago friend-zoned guy in a romantic way.  And then I said, “One day, we’re probably going to figure out that this whole marriage thing is really more about being with a steady, supportive companion anyway.”  And I think what I said was right, but why can my words not connect to my heart?

In other blog posts, I’ve ranted on and on about how desensitized we are to our culture and how, even though we think we follow Christ, we often follow culture instead because it’s all we know.  I’ve been so convicted about taking off the blinders and seeing the narrow road for what it is.  And tonight God showed me a new aspect of that: we have warped, twisted, and disfigured His idea of love into some wishful, lustful, fantasized romance.

Love is unconditional – yep, we got that.  But we’re only going to unconditionally love the people we choose, and we choose the ones who are good enough for us, which really erases the need for the whole unconditional part.1-corinthians-rings

I’m not saying that we need to return to a system of arranged marriages, but think about it for just a second.  It’s hard to comprehend, because we’ve never known such a thing.  The thought horrifies us.  Learning to love someone after marriage?  Learning to love someone simply because you have to, because you’re stuck with them in spite of hardships and grievances and petty annoyances?

Hmmm. Sounds uncomfortably like the love of Christ.

In the movie The Wedding Planner, Mary’s father tells her how he fell in love with her mother:

“Your mother and I had an arranged marriage.  We met on the day of our wedding.  We wouldn’t even look at each other.  I was in love with another girl, and your mother wanted nothing to do with me.  She said I had big eyebrows and a low IQ.  Anyway, one day I got very sick with scarlet fever, and she stayed by my side.  She took good care of me.  For the first time, I appreciated her.  Then appreciation grew to respect.  Respect grew to like.  And like grew to love…a deeper love than I could ever hope for.”

We’re conditioned to flinch at the thought of being with someone we don’t “love,” but what do we really mean by that?  Someone we’re not attracted to?  Someone who doesn’t meet our every need?  It’s not about being with who you love, but loving who you’re with.

A while back, I was journaling my thoughts and prayers and asked God to bring me a man of spiritual maturity and depth who would be more in love with God than he would ever be with me, who would be a good father and who would care about me and support my call to ministry.  I’m ashamed to admit this, but then I panicked a bit, realizing that this type of person might also be a sensitive man who cries, or a romantic who’s a little more into PDA than I.  So a part of me wanted to add, “And who never embarrasses me in public, please God, amen.”

Yes. I can be that shallow.

But the words never passed my lips, because as soon as they entered my brain I realized their utter ridiculousness.  Instead, God brought me to my knees in humility as He convicted me of my cultural short-sightedness and began to show me a glimpse of real love.

You see, our society has taught us to believe that we’re defined by who we love.  If we love somebody bold and important and exciting, that elevates our social status.  Conversely, if we love someone who’s not cool, that must mean we’re not cool.  If they do something awkward, we feel embarrassed because we consider it a reflection on ourselves and our taste in men/women.  But we’re not defined at all by who we love; we’re defined by how we love.  Jesus said that all men will know we are His disciples if we love one another (John 13:35) — regardless of how easy to love the “one anothers” are.

No marriage will be without its frustrations or irritations.  The vows of “sickness and health, richer or poorer” are not just nice fluffy words.  There will be hardships and pain, and yes, times that you want to hide and pretend you don’t know your spouse.

But if God does bring me a man of integrity who loves Him above all else, whose only fault happens to be that he makes dumb jokes or embarrasses me with PDA, it won’t kill me to laugh and to hold his hand in public.

But even if it did, isn’t unconditional love something we’re supposed to die for?

Paradigm Shift

Throughout the years, culture changes result in paradigm shifts.  It always takes a generation or two to assimilate to the change, but once it happens, future generations look back and wonder how their ancestors could have been so short-sighted, how they could have given into cultural expectations that clearly go against God’s standard.

The truth is, we all wear glasses that filter out the colors of racism and oppression and prejudice and even murder — we know they exist, but we don’t see them as a part of what we do.  It’s surprisingly easy to rationalize whatever it is that our culture deems okay — and in some cases, even to support it by Scripture.  Our glasses are great at proof-texting while filtering out the larger context.  Sadly, our humanity makes us literally incapable of removing ourselves from the culture enough to see the true horror of what we do.  Perhaps the saddest part about this is that very few Christians are actually a set-apart people of the Word.  They are products of their culture who interpret their religion based on their preconceptions.

Think about slavery.  Living in our current culture, several generations removed from the oppression of slavery, we’re horrified at the thought of it.  But in the pre-Civil War era, it was perfectly acceptable to own another person; it made perfect sense to them.  It was necessary for the economy, and probably even better for the welfare of the slaves themselves.  Scripture even condoned slavery.  They had no concept of what it would be like not to own slaves: how would they get dressed in the mornings? how would they harvest cotton? how could they live without this crutch they so heavily depended on?  So because they knew no different, life continued as normal until slavery was abolished, the societal structure was reset, and the cultural paradigm shifted.  And the world did not end.  People learned to live without their crutch.

Even after abolition, though, the Jim Crow laws were nearly as bad.  Today, as we live and work alongside our African-American friends, we ask how in the world they could have been arrested for drinking out of the wrong water fountain.  Our minds literally cannot grasp such a thing; but back then, they couldn’t grasp how it could be any other way.

Think about women’s rights.  The oppression of women stemmed from the southern ideal of “true womanhood” — a woman was the prized possession who needed to stay at home and stay out of public affairs.  As this mentality took over southern culture, it too was given religious affirmation: Paul said women should remain silent, so this made sense.  Never mind the examples of women teaching and prophesying and leading in Scripture.  The cultural glasses expertly edit that out.  Here’s just one example of this mindset, from R.C. Bell, from the publication The Way in 1903: “Woman is not permitted to exercise dominion over man in any calling of life.  When a woman gets her diploma to practice medicine, every Bible students knows that she is violating God’s holy law…God forbids her to work in any public capacity…She is not fitted to do anything publicly.”  However, in the late 19th and early 20th century there was more of a move toward gender equality and women’s suffrage.  With this paradigm shift, people began to realize that the world actually wouldn’t end if women taught school and pursued education and a career.  They were right.  It didn’t.  Now we can’t even fathom the sort of mindset that would forbid women to vote just because they are women.

Think about Jesus’ death at the hands of the Jews.  Their cultural expectation was of a political Messiah who would restore the kingdom to Israel.  Jesus was obviously not that, so He was a blasphemer.  We wonder how they could have been so stupid, but let’s face it: if we were in their shoes, growing up with the same preconceptions,

we too would have shouted, “Crucify!”

Even think about the Holocaust.  It was presented as being a good idea — rid the world of minorities, and the handicapped, and those who were a burden to society, to let the master race emerge.  We wonder how in the world people could have been okay with the mass slaughter of millions of innocent people in the name of a superior social structure.

Kinda makes you wonder how in the world people can be okay with the mass slaughter of millions of innocent people in the name of a woman’s right to choose.

You see, we can’t help getting swept into the stream of culture.  These mindsets become so deeply ingrained as a part of who we are, that we can’t imagine life any other way.  In every generation there are a few who dare to dream of things being different, and these are the ones who change the world.  But for the most part, we’re a sad lot of mindless cattle following the herd.  Generations from now, what will our descendants say about us in disbelief and disgust?

How could they have been so wasteful with their resources?”

How could they have tried to ‘fix’ gay people?”

How could they have thought it was okay to abort a baby?”

For one moment, try to take off the glasses and ask these questions.

It’s so hard for us to imagine what life would be like without our cultural mindsets, but the truth is, Jesus called us to look beyond the comfortable.  To think outside the box.  To travel the narrow and difficult road.  This is precisely why so few are able to enter the Kingdom: it’s freaking difficult to find.  I think it’s much harder than we’ve assumed all these years.  Living Kingdom life requires that we take a good hard look at “the way we’ve always done it.”  We have to ask the difficult questions and upset the status quo if we are to be truly not of this world.  Living this way is offensive to the world, because we stand against the tide of culture.  This is why early Christians were martyred: they were seen as a threat to the social system and the established order.  Have you ever wondered why we fit in so well these days?  Because we love our culture.  We immerse ourselves in it.  The media, the consumerism, the politics.  As Pastor Steve Berger once said, “If we’re not being persecuted, it’s because we don’t look enough like Christ to a Christ-hating world.”

There are so many sincere Christians who have been led astray by the incremental deception of Satan as he infiltrates our churches with cultural values.  We’ve accepted Christ, but our lives look no different.  And we’re the ones losing, we’re the ones missing out on what the world could be.  Instead of bringing the Kingdom to earth, we’re promoting our own kingdom.  We’re living in our story instead of His.  When Jesus comes again, will He look at our castles in the sand and say “Well done, good and faithful servant?”  Or will He have to clear His temple of its cultural bias?

Jesus compared the Kingdom to hidden treasure for a reason.  If we can’t listen for the still small voice in a world that clamors for its agenda, if we can’t see past the filthy lens of our culture-colored glasses to defend the marginalized and the oppressed and stand for Kingdom values, then we’re no better than any of the generations before us.  We’re no better than the ones who crucified Christ.

God, grant us forgiveness for our blindness and syncretism.

the cultural church

In a culture consumed by consumerism, infiltrated with individualism, and saturated with syncretism, I have to wonder just how well the typical American church measures up to what Jesus intended for His body. We have allowed society to shape us, rather than the Potter. If Jesus were to walk into the typical American church, I have to wonder how he would feel seeing His body tattooed with our own sentiments of nationalism and materialism. I have to wonder if he would come in with whips and overturn the tables.  I have to wonder…would we even let Him in?

This is heavy stuff, guys.

In the book Exploring Ecclesiology, Harper and Metzger talk about the three levels of individualism that have influenced the church.

First, we focus on the single unit of me, myself, and I. What do I want? What will make me happy? What will I get out of worship? This self-centered attitude takes God out of the equation altogether and leaves us with the Convenience church of Self, with its denominational counterpart just down the road for church shoppers who prefer an off-brand.

Second, we focus on the nuclear family, seeing the church as a composite group made up of distinct family units. This destroys any sense of real community in the church and provides no place for those without families. Jesus deliberately made the point that His disciples were His true family, but we have lost that vital sense of belonging in the church.

Third and finally, we focus on our own local churches as separate and distinct from the universal body of Christ. Someone made a very thought-provoking comment in class the other day about how churches try to set themselves apart from “other churches” and use their differences as a selling point. This is typical of the American free market economy (“Compare to Tylenol brand!”) and should never characterize the Church. As I once wrote in another blog post, “Jesus erased cultural, economic, and gender distinctions, and fabricating divisions seems to be a pretty poor way to repay His sacrifice to bring us to unity…Jesus Himself said, ‘If a house is divided against itself, that house will not stand’ (Mark 3:25).”

Well, we’re divided. And it doesn’t look like we’re standing too well, either.

When did it become about us? Christianity has lost its saltiness to a mushy blend of moralistic therapeutic deism. And when salt loses its saltiness….

Look at what’s happening. Don’t look through the rose-colored glasses of cultural perversion; we’ve been blinded long enough. Grasp the big picture of what Jesus intended the church to be. If you haven’t read The Mission of God’s People by Christopher Wright, I highly recommend it. It really opened my eyes to where we need to be…and how far away we’ve gotten.

The church is in desperate need of reformation. What are we going to do about it?

A word of caution: a new denomination won’t solve it. Seeking to separate and distinguish yourself from the church only creates more division. The concept of “No religion, just a relationship” is saturated with individualism. Religion IS relationship — with God and with the church.

We’ve been called out and set apart, to be in the world but not of it. To leave behind anything that hinders. To destroy any part of ourselves that does not look like Christ.

We need to start living like it.

Published in: on October 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm  Comments (1)  
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screw the system, I’m playing by God’s rules

We live in a system.

A system that dictates our every move.

That defines our every goal.

From the day we’re born, our lives are mapped out by the expectations of society. If you don’t start kindergarten when you’re five, you’ll always be a grade behind and everyone will think you’re stupid. If you don’t go to college, you won’t get anywhere in life. If you don’t have a car, you won’t have a life. You do what the system tells you to do, when the system tells you to do it. You say what the system tells you to say. You buy what the system tells you to buy. And pretty soon….

You look just like the system.

At Passion2012, Louie Giglio said some things that really stuck with me. “We let the system dictate the course of our lives,” he began. “You say, ‘Oh, my life will start when I finish grad school.’ But you don’t have to wait to do something amazing for God. What’s keeping you from pursuing His plans for you? Are you waiting for the system to tell you when to do it?”

That hit me pretty hard. And then it made me a little bit sick. I wanted to stand up and say “Forget college, I’m not letting the system define me. I’ll go do something awesome like fight sex trafficking in India.”

But… I didn’t.

Why didn’t I?

Is it because I’ve conformed too much to the pattern of this world? I hope not.

I can make all sorts of excuses, but when it comes down to it, I’m a stamp on the time card of the system. But it’s time to change that.

No, I’m not quitting college to do something drastic. Now that I’m here, I feel like I have a reason to be here.

So instead, I’m going to do something drastic right here in college. All those projects that I’ve said I’ll do “someday”? TODAY is someday. I’m not waiting around. If I don’t have it in me to change the world now, I’m not going to change the world when I’m 25 and have a doctorate degree.

And who says I have to find The One and settle down after my senior year? Who says I need a career? Once I graduate, I’m done playing by the rules. And the big bad system can deal with it, because I wasn’t made to fit the mold. I was made to reflect the image of God.

 

Published in: on January 8, 2012 at 1:33 am  Comments (2)  
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