Thursday, June 19, 2008

I willingly have to

Every Sunday morning a stream of people make a stupendous countercultural declaration. They decide to gather as the church.

Although some youths might disagree, there are very few people who are dragged against their will to gather with Christians for corporate worship, where they experience life beneath God’s Word, Christian conversation, mutual encouragement and pre-Swiss Chalet coffee.

Long gone are the days when stores were closed, playground swings chained and the western world screeched to a Sunday halt out of respect for the gathering of the faithful. These days we shop, golf, play hockey, read the paper or go to work without anyone so much as blinking an eye. Every day is mostly like every other.

This is the day of the truly voluntary, willing church. It should be wonderfully encouraging that anyone gathers at all, given the myriad of options and distractions, work schedules and family realities. For possibly the first time in Canadian history, the church gathered is a willing countercultural statement, and most Christians don’t realize how rebellious they really are. If only they would!

We come together not because we are forced to, but because we have to. Perhaps that sounds contradictory, but there is an enormous chasm between “force” and “have” in this case. No one in our culture is remotely forced to gather with other believers. There is no overt state pressure to be together. There is nothing in the wider culture that encourages or supports the corporate gathering of the church on Sundays, or any other day for that matter. Christians gather—whenever they gather—because of Jesus, because the Spirit draws, and because we have to.

So, we’re not forced, but how is it that we “have” to gather? We have to because we who have determined to follow Jesus with shouldered cross need to be “unperverted.” While it’s true that the whole of life is given to God, that my whole life from breakfast to coffee-break to midnight snack is worship, I live in a world in which I am ever swimming upstream against a raging torrent of consumerism, idolatry, selfishness and indifference. Given that the following of Jesus is increasingly a lonely journey on the street corners, in the factories and in the schools of our nation, it is increasingly necessary for Christians to gather. If we don’t, we inevitably catch the common “cold” of our world, lose the fire of our first love, miss how beautiful Jesus is in the face of our neighbour, and begin to wither.

We simply have to be together as more than two or three—not simply so that hymnals get used, pastors have something to do, or offerings get collected—but because every day we are hammered by the perversion and ungodliness of our culture and we need the time together to “unpervert” ourselves, to remember who we really are, to support one another, love one another and hear the Word again, all in order that we may be re-commissioned to love the world as Jesus does.

We are a peculiar people. We’re really quite strange. Every time Christians gather we are making a shocking declaration that there is another way and only one Lord. We gather because we willingly have to. So, “let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).

Friday, June 06, 2008

Boycott Bejing?

China's Olympics and the World's Response

On the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008 the focus of the world – at least the consumer and athletic world – will be on Beijing, China when the XXIX Olympiad begins. Will you be watching or will you boycott?

In March much of the shine went off China’s first foray into the Olympic-host family as their long standing and occasional violent dispute with Tibet garnered great world-wide attention. The timing for the Chinese couldn’t have been worse since the start of the Olympic torch relay in Greece just happened to fall a few days after this latest round of Tibetan/Chinese unrest (there is a long history of love and hate between Tibet and China – a history worth telling but goes well beyond the scope of this column).

The torch relay, designed to circle the globe in order to support the great vision of the Beijing Games to celebrate “One World One Dream”, gave the perfect platform for very public protests of the Chinese treatment of Tibetans and their Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. The relay through cities like Paris and San Francisco turned into nearly comical games of hide and seek. There have been fervent calls for “free” nations to boycott Beijing by keeping their Olympians at home until China frees Tibet by Free Tibet – an organization based in London, England; ironically the home of twentieth century colonial expansion that shaped much of the current situation, along with the rise of Mao Zedong and Chinese communism in 1950.

Interestingly, the last time there were Olympic boycotts Communism was front and center as well. In 1980 most western nations boycotted the XXII Olympiad in Moscow over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (strangely there were no boycotts of the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York and the Soviets were not barred from attending though the “miracle on ice” may have been humiliation enough). Four years later the eastern bloc countries returned the favour by skipping the Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games because of anti-Soviet hysteria.

Isn’t it interesting that now, twenty-eight years later, western nations are in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and boycott-lingo regarding a Communist regime remains? This world is a very peculiar place indeed! Who knows what things will look like should the wordy tarry another two decades?

Some governments – like Canada and France – have said they will not send heads of state to the Olympics’ opening ceremonies in protest of China’s human rights abuses. That’s all well and good and melodramatic, but it seems the good-old days of the full-scale boycott are gone. Goodness knows we can’t afford a full protest of China, since we risk empty dollar stores should they respond in kind. In truth, since the 1980s the Olympics have become more than a big track meet where we learn which political ideology can produce the greatest pumped-up athletes. Now the Olympics are big business with North Americans, Europeans and the Chinese bowing freely at the altar of the almighty buck, euro and yuan. We can’t boycott Beijing, our god won’t let us. Human rights make great headlines, but nothing moves us like money.

What is even most striking for those who follow Jesus ought to be something even more disturbing than western society’s schizophrenia when it comes to who is bad and for what reasons and at what cost. While the oppression of Tibetans deserves justice and righteousness – and Christians ought to join and even lead such calls – where have been the outcries from western nations for a boycott of China because their outrageous persecution of Chinese Christians? Had Tibet not made the news in March one wonders if any of this political hand-wringing would have happened at all. Have any of us heard any news about the Zurich Statement of the Church in China (PDF) issued by the Religious Liberty Partnership also in March?

As Christians we are to stand with those in chains (Colossians 4:18) and even join our brothers and sisters in being willing to suffer for the Gospel (2 Timothy 1:8). Have we done this sufficiently? Have we, midst all the ballyhoo about boycott raised before our governments not just the trouble in Tibet, but the unjust suffering of those who know Jesus in the very country the friendly games will be hosted this summer? Or would that cost us too much? Might that not force us to reveal what race we are really running and where our allegiance lies?

One begins to wonder where the citizenship of those called Christians really lies when we seem disturbed by the ongoing political struggle between two nations and sadly silent about the intense persecution of those whose example of Christ-like devotion and mission ought to humble us. We will too quickly forget about boycotts once gold medals start getting awarded in August.