Maybe it’s just my cultural context here in the Bible-belt-buckle, or maybe it’s just my perception of the consensual attitude of believers in this area, but there is a growing trend and posture among Christians that concerns me. It’s taken me a while to grasp exactly what it was that irked me, but it’s becoming clearer to me know. It began with what I thought were simple and harmless observations about our ever-changing culture, country, and world. Small conversations or brief outbursts of concern among Christians in my personal spheres of influence became more audible in my ears. Questions were being asked, which was good, but these questions led not to reasoned responses and a turning to God but rather to anger, fear, outrageous accusations, and terrible theology. It also led to paralysis. And this should cause us all to become unsettled.
What I’ve discovered is that we are lagging terribly behind in the area of cultural formation. We’re in the cheap seats just watching it happen before our eyes. We’re so far back at this point that it’s no longer about being relevant to our culture but rather about being authentic. And by we, I mean church attending, Bible knowing, believers. And by authentic, I mean actually remembering what it means to be a true follower of Jesus.
This doesn’t mean we don’t care. It doesn’t mean we haven’t tried. What it means is that we haven’t initiated or taken the lead. We haven’t found means and opportunities to form public opinion. We’re not in the front helping to create cultural change, but we’re in the back responding to it and criticizing it. And we do this in different forms including programs, seminars, and of course, political activity. However, by the time we are arguing for public policy change, it’s simply to late.
In his book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Hunter essentially says that politics is not the first line of action for cultural change but rather one of the last. Public opinion comes way before public policy. Public opinion is often more swayed in “cultural centers” than it is in the public courthouse or capitals. Yet, this is often where we as believers feel we can make the most difference, where we can defend our “Christian nation” from destruction. Instead, we find ourselves fighting a battle that’s already been decided; or it’s like watching cement set.
There has been a mold formed in the public square on cultural topics that includes but is not limited to gay marriage, the rise of the “nones,” and women’s rights. This mold took a while to create but it was slowly being put into place by those most concerned with these issues. They worked hard and effectively to shape the mold and complete it before pouring in the wet cement of public opinion. And now the cement is setting; quickly. It’s at this point when we often come in and try to effect change. The mold is incorrect and misshapen, we say. It will lead to problems X, Y, and Z. Opinion must be changed, the mold recast.
And yet it may be too late. Hardened cement is much harder to remove than when it’s still wet. We’ve waited to long to get involved. Now, we find ourselves chipping away at concrete rather than erecting the wooden frame in which it was poured. It can be removed, but it comes at great cost and great pain.
Instead, what would it look like if we began looking forward to the molds that are already being formed? More importantly, what if the Church began to create her own molds to take before the public? What if we stopped being conformed to the shape of this world and started transforming it’s shape altogether (Rom. 12:1-2)? What if we went out in front with our hammer and nails and began building a cultural mold?
Understand, I’m not promoting that the church only be concerned with public opinion or singularly focused on the idea of cultural formation. But what I am saying is that as a mission of the church we are to be involved in the restoration of creation; all of creation includes cultures as well. And we should continue to abound in the work of the Lord, “knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:58) We can be used by God to bring shalom, to bring peace, justice, truth, and hope to our world. As believers, regardless of our political stance or our view of current culture, we can be vessels of change in our society even if things continue to deteriorate. For our hope is not found in a sitting president or senator, but in the King and Ruler of the Heavens and Earth. We can seek the welfare of the city (Jer. 29:7) for this is what we’re called to.
Now, I don’t know exactly how this works. My carpentry and masonry skills are somewhat limited. It’s not that clear or easy to know how to proceed, but I know that we must find a way to move to the front the way the early church did. We must come together to formulate some next steps. We must act like the Church again. In Acts, we see God use a band of frightened and confused disciples to create a cultural mold that completely transformed the world. They did it through love for their neighbors, concern for the poor and ailing, and by proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ. The same God that used that band of men to establish His Kingdom continues to inspire and lead today, and He’s chosen us as his craftsmen; for we are ambassadors of the King and co-workers of the great carpenter from Nazareth.
We’ve all got them. We all use them. I’m writing today about excuses. See, I haven’t written on this blog in nearly three weeks. I could list my reasons for not doing so. I could blame my busy schedule, my needy kids, or my faulty computer. I could blame tiredness, allergies, distractions, or even the weather. I could easily justify my neglect and probably evoke empathy from most readers. It’s always something, right? We all understand.
But in the end my reasons are still simple excuses. They are my attempt to put forward a defense or justification for my choices. In most circumstances they become a way of diverting attention from the real reasons for my actions. What I mean to say is that we are often skillfully equipped at giving reasonable and truthful explanations for our own actions while at the same time avoiding the deeper issues that drive us.
At least this is what happens in my life and experience. Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not saying that all excuses mask deeper problems. Sometimes things just happen that are outside of our control and all we can do is admit to that. Running late because a wreck on 183 brought traffic to a stand still? A valid, honest, and understandable reason for your tartiness. That’s fine to admit to. But, running late because you had to stick around to see the end of The Sixth Sense (which you still deny having already seen 15 times)? Come on. This excuse is simply not telling of the whole story. It’s a mask for not valuing that person or event more than you’re own selfish interests; and it’s an ugly excuse at that. Actually, I’d hope no one would ever use this excuse because we all know how The Sixth Sense ends anyway. (Please excuse my poor examples, I just… never mind.) In cases like this, it’s more likely that we’ll lie about the movie and blame it on the traffic.
Excuses substituted as lies reveal the depth of our self-deception. There’s something going on in the midst of our excusing that we simply try to overlook. It becomes obvious that there are times when we can easily and rightly justify our actions and there are times when we simply can not. But in either circumstance, in truth or lie, in reasonable circumstance or in lame reasoning, the strength of our desire for justifiable action is undeniable. From within us comes this overwhelming and constant need to be blameless in the site of others. There is always the need to divert blame elsewhere so that it doesn’t land on our shoulders. There’s always something or someone else responsible. But never me.
Where does this urge for blamelessness come from? Why do I feel the need to provide explanation for my actions, both good and bad? Why do I want to be exalted for my successes and looked over for my faults? It is these deeper questions that drive our excuse making. Within each of us is this need to be declared good and innocent. Many times we’ll do things that are not good nor innocent in attempt to be viewed as such by others. It’s a terrible cycle we find ourselves in that’s fueled by the human ego. We know that everyday interrogation is going to come from others, but it’s also going to come from within.
Madonna once said that her drive in life is from the fear of being mediocre. Everyday she still has to prove that she’s somebody. This, coming from one of the most well-known and successful pop singers of all time. She’s not being questioned from without, but from within. We all recognize this because we all share in it. It’s our curse. It’s our humanity that brings it because we all find our beginnings in the garden and in Adam. There he allowed judgement in by disobeying God. He separated himself and us from our Creator and we’ve been trying to prove ourselves worthy to return to his presence ever since. Adam and Eve’s first word’s after the Fall were excuses for their actions that they hoped would somehow justify their disobedience. They didn’t work, but yet we continue to try. We all feel the urge to make excuses, but we all wish we didn’t have to as well.
The good news is that we don’t. There’s only one place to find our justification and that’s in Jesus. With Jesus we are defined by what he did on the cross and not what we have done on our own. With him there are no more excuses. With him we know our shortcomings yet we’re received fully by his grace; we know he is now our reason for all good things.
I know that I need to be more careful of the excuses I give. I know that I need to look at the underling accusations in my own heart before I start rattling off a string of reasoned responses. I want to know what it is to not need excuses, to think less of myself and my worth before others; to know that I am valued above all by Jesus my King is and should be enough.
1. We worry about the shallowness and superficiality of online relationships, so we go to FaceBook and Twitter to register our concerns.
2. We are so focused on the newest and latest things that we leave behind the oldest and most foundational things.
3. We’ve turned the virtue of prudence into the vice of prudishness and the vice of impropriety into the virtue of authenticity.
4. We ban soda from schools but make condoms widely available… because corn syrup is a more serious matter for youngsters than sex.
5. We decry the exploitation of women, but cry “censorship” when someone wants decency standards against objectifying women on television.
6. We chide a pregnant mother for smoking because of the harm it does to her child, but we applaud her choice to walk into a clinic and have her baby torn limb by limb and extracted from her uterus.
7. It’s arrogant to buck the current push to redefine marriage, but not arrogant to buck the consensus of virtually every society before us.
8. Citizens who would like to keep the money they earn are “greedy.” Politicians who would take their wealth and give it away are “generous.”
9. We believe in tolerance: everyone can believe whatever they want (as long as they don’t really believe it).
10. We believe every religion should be open and inclusive, but not open and inclusive enough for a Jesus who claims to be Lord of all.
~~~ Frustrated with our failure to live up to our ideals, we do away with them altogether. And then we feel better for being worse. ~~~
A good friend of mine recently sent me a link to a hilarious YouTube video entitled “Shoot Christians Say.” If you grew up in the Bible Belt, spent a week at youth camp every summer, attended every Christian conference imaginable, and are currently plugged into a thriving church with multiple services each Sunday, then this video will make you laugh and cry. If this doesn’t describe you, I’d encourage you to watch it anyway. You’ll get a good glimpse of current church subculture in a little under three minutes time. (You’ll find the video at the end of this post.)
I’ll admit that it is remarkable the “shoot” that Christians say. And while I can laugh at much of it from inside the Christian culture and admit that I too sometimes say the darndest things, there are other words that escape many a Christians’ lips these days that cause me to shudder and cry. And no, I’m not talking about insider Christian terminology, nor am I addressing bad language, bad jokes, or even bad grammer. I’m talking about bad theology; the kind that makes you want to grab a bar of soap and start cleaning your mouth out.
I recently heard of a small group that consisted of about four couples that met regularly for Bible study and fellowship. The group was comprised of couples from the same stage of life, in their 40’s-50’s and with grown kids. At one of their meetings, one of the couples announced some shocking news to the rest of the group; they were not actually married but just living together. This was a big admission, especially in a conservative group of believers from a prominent church in the Bible Belt. There could be some major backlash from letting this out. But after a small explanation from the couple, some awkward moments of darting eyes, and a quick second to gather a response, one of the men in the group dared a reply. “That’s great,” he braved. “It’s obvious that you deeply love one another, care for one another, and have a great relationship. I think God honors your relationship and so do we.”
This is where the rub comes. This response saddens me. I do think it’s correct that the couple was loved and accepted in the group regardless of their marital status, but I find the quick, disarming response that “God honors your relationship” to be misleading and false. God does not, can not, honor something that is contrary to His design and intent.
Now I believe this is just a common example of the things we are hearing from Christians today. It’s not necessarily the exact words that matter in this case but rather the bad ideas behind that words that are upsetting. There are implications spread throughout the conversation of social and cultural pressures that trump basic Biblical knowledge. At the same time the pendulum swings the other way as well. Instead of answers given that soften a Christian position, there are often thoughts verbalized that attempt to stand on a more solid Biblical foundation but that are skewed to the point of being demeaning, pompous, and in similar theological error. Examples abound when we speak of politics, abortion, gay-marriage, and other social topics that are tending to divide many Christians into either a camp that compromises Biblical truth for social harmony or a camp with higher and higher walls to keep the heathen out. My friends, this should not be so.
This is perhaps one of the things that I am most interested in understanding and communicating: how I can keep and proclaim solid, Biblical truth while also keeping open communication and relationships with those who may disagree with my beliefs? Also, how can we live this out in the fellowship of believers as well as in the lives of those outside the church? Anyway, much more on this I need to hash out. So more to come. But first, let’s listen to the “Shoot Christians Say.”
We may not know where it’s found, what context it’s used in, but we know it’s in there. Grouped with other well-known verses like the Golden Rule and most of the 10 commandments is the Biblical phrase “Don’t judge.” To quote the verse in its entirety we can look to Matthew 7:1 where Jesus, in the middle of his sermon on the mount, proclaims, “Don’t judge people, and you won’t be judged yourself.” And many reading this quietly or enthusiastically proclaim, “Amen! That’s right!”
It appears easy enough on the surface and to our earbud-filled ears it sounds ideal. This has become the anthem of our day and the go-to pitch for cultural peace and harmony. If only everyone lived this out the world would be in such better shape, right? But would it?
Today, we interpret Jesus’ statement as a call for the courtroom of cultural and moral judgment to be being emptied for the sake of tolerance and equality. The new standard is to remove the judge from the stand, adjourn the jury, and simply let people live their lives in peace away from scrutiny. This is becoming the height of cultural perfectionism and to make any statement that even remotely shows disagreement with another’s opinion, choices, or lifestyle is to pick up the judge’s gavel and declare a verdict of guilt. And who are you, or who am I to have such authority to swing that gavel? Therefore, leave it lie. Don’t judge. Clear the courtroom, for the court of public (or even private) opinion is now adjourned.
Yet, upon closer evaluation we discover that this barren hall we desire simply does not and can not exist. How can it? Someone has to sit behind the bench and declare a recess. The court cannot determine this for itself. When someone says “don’t judge” they have just declared a court order, a judgement you could say, on the rights of another. To tell another person not to judge is to determine that your verdict on the situation overrules theirs. You become the judge behind the bench. The same question then arises in different form as we ask who then does has the authority to declare such a verdict?
“Fine,” we may say, “I won’t tell others not to judge, I’ll just practice that behavior myself by not judging others.” Well this sounds fine and reasonable, but you are still elevating your ideals over those of others even if you choose not to express them. At some point, because others will not carry your same sense of quiet rejection of judgment, your values are going to clash with those of others. And what then? And where does this value begin and end? Surely some things are worthy of judgment, while others situations demand judgment. Your value of not judging others simply can not apply to all people and all things in all situations. Life is full of decisions, choices, judgment calls and verdicts of right and wrong. To make those decisions, some sort of court order must be exercised. By this I mean that even your right not to judge others and the extent of that right has to come from somewhere or someone that you deem authoritative. Again the question; how holds such authority? Therefore, the court, even if muted, is still in session.
Then where does this leave us? If we go back to Matthew we find that Jesus alone appears to carry the authority to make such a statement. He alone is the only person who can decree “do not judge” because he is the only man who himself is blameless. He has the moral authority to make this declaration because in the courtroom where we ridicule and fight with one another, Jesus stands above it all clean and guiltless. Therefore, when we look at the Scriptures we see Jesus as judge, as the one who declares right and wrong, guilt and innocence. So, he gets to swing the gavel while we sit in the defendants chair.
In this way, Jesus is right in that we should not judge others. We have no right to judge because we are just as guilty as the person next to us. What an awful place to be in. Each day we find ourselves dragged into the judgement seat. No wonder we want to defer judgment on others because perhaps by doing so we can escape judgment ourselves. But once again, as pointed out earlier, the court is in session and we find ourselves on the stand with a tree in our eye. We plead our case on a daily basis but to no avail. The guilt remains…unless it can be taken by someone else.
At this point the scene in the courtroom changes as Jesus, the innocent and blameless judge, takes our place and receives our sentence upon himself. He has ruled and found us guilty and worthy of death, yet he takes the guilt from us and goes to death on a cross in our stead. As a result, the trial is now over. The courtroom has been cleared because the verdict was handed down when Jesus went to the cross. The moment we believe in Jesus as our substitute, as the one who accepted our conviction upon himself, the gavel fell and the court dismissed. Jesus went to trial for you and for me.
Now I’m no longer required to stand in any courtroom and I can take any opinion leveled at me because I already have my verdict. This verdict also frees me from the need to elevate myself above others because I am as guilty as they are. This freedom has nothing to do with my worth but everything to do with Jesus’ value. No longer am I judged by others because my sentence is in and I have been found innocent by the blood of Jesus.
You see the problem we have with the courtroom is not the judgment, it’s the guilt and sentencing that comes with it. We want the court of law but we don’t want the verdict that we know is coming against us. We want so desperately to avoid our own guilt that we posture to refer from judging the guilt of others in hope that we too will be spared. This is why others want the court dismissed. If we don’t judge others, maybe the log in our own eye will be overlooked.
However, if we just receive God’s verdict in Jesus, then we can actually help one another remove the planks and splinters we have in our eyes. As neighbors we can become closer because our desire to is love and help one another. This just is not possible if we’re all walking around with oaks growing through our pupils. As believers we become free to be judged by others, to be criticized, because the opinion of the only one who counts has been given. And He finds me valuable. He finds you valuable as well.
It’s been eleven straight days of sickness for my family. My wife and both kids are currently taking antibiotics to rid their bodies of the green gunk that clogs their ears, nose, and sinuses. It’s been a messy and tiring week because life continues even when you’re sick. I’ve wanted life to stop, to press pause, and to resume only when we were back functioning at 100%. But for some reason that hasn’t happened.
I’ve taken lots of personality profile tests and assessments and have yet to see empathy crack into my list of strengths. Unfortunately, this becomes painfully obvious when others around me are sick. When I’m the lone man standing against my stuffy-nosed wife and two mucus hacking kids my patience tends to wear. At first it’s not too bad. I’m sympathetic and want to help care for my wife and kids. I don’t mind playing with them so that Liz can lie down and rest. I don’t mind fixing food, or picking up, or giving baths and medicine. I feel for them and I want to be the loving husband and father that I should be. But seven days later I find that I’m kind of done with this whole sickness routine. Surely these people are feeling better and ready to start pulling their weight again. After all I’ve sacrificed for the last few days, I now just want things to be normal again so I can pick up my routine, get back to the things I need to do. (I can see the head’s shaking in disgust and the fingers wagging at my selfishness.) Such is my weakness.
Don’t worry, I feel ashamed of my thoughts and my self-absorbed mentality. I don’t want to feel this way and I battle letting it leak out of my mind and into my actions and words, but sometimes it still shows up. My frustration at the situation just eats at me and I feel disappointed in myself. I’m not upset with my wife or kids but with the fact that our lives are not within our control and that this situation is something I can’t correct on my own. It makes me want to shut out everything and focus on me at the expense of others.
At the same time this whole ordeal has actually helped me to reflect more on God’s provision. Yes I have become more aware at my lack of empathy, but I’ve also found myself praising God that he has no such shortage. God sent his own Son to heal the sick, to make the lame to walk, to open the eyes of the blind. He sent his Son not to care for a small cold, but for a sick and dying world. And by becoming one of us, by being born a man, Jesus has experienced firsthand the deep needs of sick and ailing people, the foolish ideas and ways of the disciples, and the overwhelming arrogance of the Pharisees. And yet in all these situations he never walked away, never gave up on people, never gave up on his own task. He overcame all of the temptation to focus on himself and to put his needs or desires first. He loved and served others at great expense and without complaint. In the end he loved so much that he even abandoned his own life so that others may be healed and have life eternally. In every way, Jesus displayed the perfect love of a husband and a father in ways that I will never even approach.
That’s right, there is no way I can approach that kind of selfless love on my own. t’s not something I can muster up by my own assertive will or strength and it certainly isn’t something I was born with. So, instead of me trying to reach it myself, God brought it to me. When Jesus went to that cross and when he rose from that tomb, he brought the power to love and serve as he did directly to me. The power of the Holy Spirit living and working within me allows me to be patient in times of frustration, loving in times of anger, assured in times of doubt, and selfless in times of selfishness; all because Jesus did these things for me first. I can love and care for others because Jesus has loved and cared for me first. Only thought him alone can I can be of any use to my family.
So before I head back home to care for my family, I thank the Lord that he has given me the strength through Jesus Christ to do so. I know I’m not a great healer or comforter, but I pray that they’ll see the Great Comforter and Healer within me.