Monday, December 20, 2010

Three Wise Men

The most unsettling participants in the “Christmas story” are the most biblically literate. Asked by magi where the king of the Jews was to be born, King Herod turns to expert priests and scribes for help. Confidently the clerics reference the answer in the scroll of the prophet Micah: “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet. . .” (Luke 2:5).

King Herod the Horrible devises a sinister plan. If the Word is true and the time is ripe, then his hold on power is tenuous. He will act, because of Scripture, and Bethlehem will mourn like never before.

After providing their scriptural answer, the priests and scribes recede to the silent margins, pulling them out some 30 years later to justify killing the child of promise, just like Herod.

The gentile magi of the east act because of Scripture and venture in faith towards Jewish Bethlehem convinced stars and Scripture have aligned undeniably. Often missed in our re-telling of the Christmas story is that these foreign astronomers alone responded rightly to the prophetic promise of Scripture. This is deeply troubling and laced with hope.

It is troubling for me because, as a pastor, I am supposedly a biblical “expert.” I would have been among those asked to find the answer. There is plenty of justifiable angst about the pathetic level of biblical illiteracy these days. At the same time, we must be careful. Biblical literacy does not automatically produce biblical living or even mean the acceptance of biblical authority.

Knowing chapter and verse can merely produce religious obesity, where we recline on our spiritual couches, instead of putting feet to the promise. In Luke’s account of the epiphany visitation, the most biblical are the most irrelevant and, ultimately, irreverent. The magi—and even Herod—respond as if Scripture might actually be living and active, whereas the students of Scripture miss the plot while knowing it best.

Some Christians—and even some Christian scholars—treat the Word as if it were intended for our pompous and expert deconstruction and revision, rather than a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. This should disturb us and drive us not from careful study, but to the practical hermeneutics of wise men and women who blend the signs of the times, the truth of revelation, and a readiness to obey the authority of what God has breathed into a mosaic of living and active faith.

Despite all this, there is hope. Given the post-Christian culture we live in, the Scripture speaks with fresh power and profundity to those on a search. Those who grew up with the biblical story can forget how incredible its revelation is. People adrift in a decadent, rootless age are often primed and eager to hear from Scripture, and even receive it as living and active hope. To them it is like fresh bread in a world of day-olds. They are the new magi. Have the story-keepers become the complacent experts?

So let us search the Scripture diligently, but let us not stop there. Let us proclaim its truth relevantly and unashamedly, but let us not stop there. Let us receive what it declares and go all the way to “Bethlehem” and then return home a different way—because the Word has been made flesh, and this world and all its kingdoms will never be the same.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Life Within & Without

I am thirty-eight years old and keenly aware that my body is not twenty-eight or eighteen anymore. I am beginning to understand what “old” people like me were talking about when I was ten or twenty years younger. To maintain a healthy body moving forward I need to take good care of the life within and the life without. In other words, I need to eat right, exercise, and take care of the inner workings of this wonder of life, while at the same time maintain healthy relationships and participation in the world around me that I enter each day.
The church is no different. We are, as the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, a body. As such we have many different parts and those parts have different functions. In order for the church, the body of Christ, to remain healthy, we must maintain a healthy tension between the life within and the life without.
I have often found that two primary camps emerge within a church family. The first is of those who are determined that we should primarily be concerned about the life within. We should make sure we are knowing each other, discipling each other, walking with each other, and caring well for one another. Who can argue with how important that is? No one, of course. Jesus did say it was by our love for one another that people would know we are his disciples (John 13:35). The second camp is of those who are determined that we should primarily be concerned about the life without. We should make sure we are serving the poor, doing acts of justice in society, planting churches, and sharing the Good News far and wide. Who can argue with how important that is? No one, of course. Jesus did say we are to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).
But a funny thing can happen if we’re not careful. These two camps can come to believe that theirs is more important than the other. They can even come to suspect that the other is wrong and misguided. Whoa! Hold the phone. God has wired his church so that these two realities, the life within and the life without, are held in perfect tension. Rather than judge the other we ought to celebrate our need for one another. We ought to rejoice in the wideness of God, the opportunity we have to lean on each other’s strengths, and never make light of what it takes to be healthy as a body.
After all, my thirty-eight year old body is going to need that same within and without balance if I am to see forty-eight and beyond.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Which Hill To Die On?

I’ve entered that stage in life where something called a “teenager” meanders and groans its pimpled way through our home. It’s interesting to watch and talk to. In this new challenge – which I’m loving by the way – I’m learning the art of compromise.
It’s impossible to live in relationship and not compromise. None of us always get our way and those of us who think we should are really miserable to live or very lonely. You can’t not compromise. We build Maginot Lines to our own detriment, so let us learn to unearth our hardened embankments.
The local church, a goulash of saints with a cornucopia of opinions, oddities, tastes, and redemption histories, is the perfect place to practice compromise. Unfortunately, this is not always done well.
We can twist the priesthood of all believers into a license for everyone to get their way on the one extreme or majority rule democracy more intent on popular opinion than radical corporate unity and obedience on the other. This distorted and culturally-shaped understanding of the priesthood of all becomes a twisted version of “my rights” culture hiding behind biblical language. Still, feverishly convinced we’re practicing the Reformation ideal of de-clericalizing the priesthood, churches argue and divorce over things we should compromise on and risk ignoring things we should never surrender. Trust me; if you rage uncompromising battle royals over trivial matters as a body you will most likely abandon the more weighty matters of justice, mission, truth, and active love – and will have abandoned the priesthood of all believers in the process.
If I do that with my teenager it’s a recipe for disaster. There are hills to die on but they are few and far between.
So, what should we be willing to compromise?
At an elementary level, anything that fits the category of taste. If it’s merely a matter of likes and dislikes then we should be ready to not only compromise, but even be ready to completely surrender our way if a more effective mission strategy that is biblically faithful, Kingdom-advancing, and Jesus-glorifying is put forward. Ultimately, this will mean not just living on the shoulders of past compromises, but actually continuing to learn the art as a people.
So, does it really matter what hairstyle a teen wants to self-torture with? They’ll have to moan over the pictures in twenty years and it’s really a matter of taste-testing self-identity. This is not a hill I will die on. Besides, I like his shaggy hair and whatever’s living in it, but maybe I’m just conciliatory out of envy over my own failing crop.
We must learn as churches to compromise and surrender our way forward. We were once a people ready to die for the sake of Jesus, now we seem to only save such uncompromising zeal for music, buildings, politics, and budget lines. We seem to have constipated our compromising. This is a bloody shame, because usually when we’re busy digging trenches over things we should meet in no-man’s land over, we unwittingly compromise what should never be abandoned.
Eugene Smith writes about the four major compromises of Christian mission over the centuries: with the state (which Anabaptists have led the way in rejecting marvelously), with the culture (which Anabaptists have been rather clumsy with), with disunity in the church (yeah, we’ve gorged ourselves like teen boys at a buffet on this one), and with money (which we can guard more religiously than the gospel itself). I would argue that every local church leans toward compromise in one of these areas. Which area of compromise is your fellowship most likely to succumb to? And, conversely, where are you learning the art of healthy compromise in new ways? Which hill are you willing to die on?