Friday, May 27, 2011

Capitulate No More

Capitulation is tantalizing. Tucking our tails is tempting. This is why stories of the persevering human spirit are so inspirational. Those who overcome the black hole of capitulation surprise us by their tenacity. Mark Twain, with whimsical honesty, captures our capitulating nature: “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it a thousand times.” This “giving up” is so easy to do. Long-suffering is in short supply. Given the opportunity or faced with trial, we will retreat. The magnetic pull toward desertion is strong—even logical. Just ask Judas.

The church has always wrestled with what to do with those who give up. The third century Novatianist controversy raged over what to do with baptized believers who offered pagan sacrifices when faced with persecution. Anabaptists suffered because they were deemed traitors in the sixteenth century European milieu. These same Anabaptists then had to figure out what to do with their own who surrendered to capitulation. Desertion is such a kick in the gut that human beings always need to do something about it.

Apart from the Holy Spirit—whom Jesus said would empower disciples in the hour of testing—we will throw in the towel. The Spirit gives strength to stand when our knees knock. However, we can wrongly think we’re standing firm when relying solely on human wisdom and self-justifying religiosity. Capitulation is disastrous, but capitulation that speaks with a forked tongue is insidious.

Believers are called to long-suffering faithfulness rooted in this Good News: Jesus Christ came as God in human flesh. He suffered and died because sin demanded payment and he would not give up despite his very human desire to do so. He was buried, seemingly capitulating to those who would not give up their cultural and religious thrones, but he rose from the dead and lives today as Deliverer, Saviour and Lord of a new Kingdom that is on a mission of love and transformation in a treasonous world. Everything Christians are to be about is sourced in this just and loving act of God on our behalf. Jude urges us to contend for this faith, despite those who would appeal to our human tendency to give up (Jude 3-4).

The pressure on the church to capitulate comes in two forms: First, from cultural forces that see the cross as foolishness. Second, from religious forces that look at the cross as a stumbling block (I Corinthians 1:23). This second pressure is the most dangerous. External pressure tends to galvanize zeal. To build upon Twain’s metaphor, a diagnosis of cancer can often muster up the nerve to finally give up smoking. Conversely, the internal craving for a smoke can actually trump the confessed risks of inhaling poison. Likewise, the internal pressure to redefine or stumble over the uniqueness of Christ and his cross of judgment and grace is much more destructive because it normalizes and even rewards capitulation. Ever wondered why Scripture saves some of its harshest words, not for external persecutors, but the internal false teacher?

So, does the church take capitulation seriously? How do we—even against the clear teaching of The Book—minimize and even glamorize false teaching? It is easy to do. It sells and feels good. It keeps the peace. It is philosophically sexy. It avoids the risks of making the mistakes of the past, all the while making the greatest mistake of all. To deny the Gospel of a loving and just God made flesh, crucified because of sin, and risen from the dead as Victor and Lord of all is to capitulate either to cultural trending or religious self-justification. And, this giving up becomes another sad footnote in the annals of church history littered with tales of regrettable capitulation.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Reviving A Community Spirit

Reviving A Community Spirit

Are we no longer communities of the Spirit?

We believe in the Holy Spirit. Our confessions and creeds tell us so, though for the life of us many can hardly describe him/her/it. Ever have a family member with a job no one else in the clan can quite figure out? That’s kind of like the Spirit; he’s that person everyone appreciates, but shrugs with eyebrows raised when asked to explain. Still, we like the third person of the Godhead for his personalized benefits: personal awakening leading to salvation, personal holiness, and the blessing of personal gifts and experiences.

The theologies of the Spirit that dominate the Christian landscape – and peddled by some churches and religious broadcasting – make the Spirit’s work almost completely an individualistic matter. Undoubtedly the Holy Spirit is decidedly at work in the individual believer. However, it is half-baked to limit the Spirit’s work to the personal world of me, myself, and I. We can snobbishly treat the Spirit like a divine butler.

This Spirit-blindness is causing us to stumble in a variety of ways:
First, we love experiences of the Spirit, but go light on the fruit. We hunger and travel long distances for some tangible touch of the Spirit, but you don’t hear quite as much pining for more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control (Galatians 5:22-23). The Apostle Paul spoke of some incredible personal spiritual experiences – like being caught up to the third heaven – but he grounded those experiences in the practical living out of Spirit-fruit life as we rub shoulders with sinners and saints, not cherubim and seraphim (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). We are off base when we chase experiences of the Spirit for our personal religious tourism or satisfaction and minimize yearning for the fruit of the Spirit that is with struggle and delight harvested in relational community.

Second, we exercise the gifts of the Spirit to stroke egos or agendas rather than to edify the body and serve the Kingdom of God. I’m all for helping people discover their spiritual wiring. It can be freeing and a catalyst for the church on mission. Often, however, spiritual gifts probes end up being the equivalent of reading the Chinese zodiac calendar placemat description in between buffet table visits. In other words, it becomes only curious information and does not translate into action that benefits the community and the world. Paul’s corrective word to the Corinthians was to stop chasing gifts that could make you look spiritual and instead yearn for the gifts that help the local body actually be a transforming spiritual reality (1 Corinthians 14:12). It would seem we are still in Corinth.

Third, we are too often communities of despair rather than communities of hope. Many local churches and even whole denominations are confused by changing neighbourhood, demographic, and cultural realities. We are bewildered when what has always worked no longer seems to. So, we look for some magic pill, program, or paranormal pastor to lead us back to Egypt. Like the children of Israel we’ve given up hope of a Promised Land. We wander about building golden calves from the trinkets and souvenirs of a day that once was. We become communities of despair. This is, perhaps, the primary sign that we need to rediscover a community Spirit.

Stuck at a pivotal historical moment where we thankfully don’t know what to do, many churches have been brought to the brink of hope. Only the Father can rescue his children. Only the Lord Jesus can save his church. Only the Holy Spirit can revive dry bones. The abundant hand wringing about what must be done should be exhibit A that we have been brought to that glorious moment where only the Spirit’s power can transform the community of God’s people once more. The Spirit breathes conviction and comfort, but never despair. The Spirit resurrects. The Spirit gifts surprise and joy. Hope will rise; so let us pray, let us follow the pillar of fire, let us walk with a limp, let us be open to some divine Counseling; let us long to be a holy nation, empowered by a community Spirit, rather than an archipelago of individuals.