Friday, May 27, 2011

(becoming) Hints of Incarnation

"When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed. We have refused to be instruments of love in the hands of God to give the poor a piece of bread, to offer them a dress with which to ward off the cold. It has happened because we did not recognize Christ when, once more, he appeared under the guise of pain, indentified with a man numb from the cold, dying of hunger, when he came in a lonely human being, in a lost child in search of a home."

Friday, May 20, 2011

The End Times

There are many Christians and many Christian subcultures out there that are fanatical with eschatology and end times prophecy/theology. As many of you know, the “beginning of the end” of the world starts tomorrow according to one fanatic, Harold Camping, and his followers. There are parties planned…even parties going on as we speak. Billboards all over the place saying, “Repent, the time is here…May 21, 2011 is Judgment Day.”

Of course, it has been widely publicized that Camping has been wrong before…in 1994, I believe. But more than that, his miss of the clear mandate of Scripture and call of Jesus is disturbing.

The easy Scripture (for most Evangelicals, save full preterists) to point to in why we should not predict the end of the world, sign of the times, Second Coming, rapture, etc. is Matthew 24:36: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Evangelicals interpret this verse to mean: “Jesus doesn’t even know the time of His second coming, only God does, so therefore we cannot know.” I think that is a good interpretation, but it only leaves us with a minor rebuke about predicting and focusing on end times. It informs us to not try to figure out something, but the verse alone doesn’t give us what to focus our time and energy on instead….

Predicting is one thing…and many are fed up with the “Camping’s” of the world…but there are still many followers of Jesus, that though they are not predicting the end of the world by specific time/date, are still putting a lot of time, energy, and effort into figuring out “signs” and other “end times” issues.

Take some popular theories/suggestions of well-meaning, eschatological-hungry Christians:
• The “rise” of Radical Islam.
• Determining/figuring out who the anti-Christ(s) could be (i.e. is it Obama, the pope, or Hitler to name a few popular current and historic suggestions).
• The Euro as sure early sign of “one worldwide currency”.
• A perceived increase in natural disasters of the earth (save global warming).
• And of course predictions of false teachers like Rob Bell (but clearly not CS Lewis). name a few hot button topics and issues of those trying to figure out the “signs of the times”.

Maybe it is fun and exhilarating to think about these things for some, but Jesus in Acts 1 tries to redirect our thinking about the end of the world and the ushering in of His Kingdom. His disciples ask Him quite urgently and plainly in verse 6: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words: Is this it? The end of the world? The beginning of God’s reign? Jesus immediately rebukes them, saying: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus clearly says..forget about that stuff!...instead…go be my witnesses here and now! Jesus refocuses our natural inclination to know when He would realize His Kingdom to the real priority and emphasis of our lives and theology should be: the Mission mandate in taking the Good News to our neighbors, nation, and the world.

Even the passage of Matthew 24, in which Jesus himself is talking about signs, etc. are instructions on the here and now implications of the signs. Jesus says to: not be deceived, stand firm, you will be killed and persecuted, and to keep watch. This information is not meant to give us an “instruction guide” on determining or abstractly figuring out the Second Coming or to have us keep focused on this event, but to help us understand that we need to stay committed and strong at that time and in fact, all times. These things Jesus says in this passage are things that are said all throughout Scripture at various times. They are eternal truths for us that stand outside of circumstance….they are true whether or not the world is coming to end, or whether or not Jesus is coming back tomorrow.

I leave you with this applicable conversation I had at the gym yesterday:

John: Nice tattoo, what does that verse say? (referring to my Matthew 16:24 tattoo)
Grant: It is Jesus saying, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.” It’s my life verse.
John: Oh sweet! And “agape” (referring to the rest of my tattoo) means “love”, right?
Grant: Yes it does! Are you a follower of Jesus?
John: Oh yes! Definitely!
Grant: Awesome, man!
John: Yeah, though, have you been hearing about this end of the world stuff?
Grant: Yeah, I have.
John: I did some research on it…it sounds pretty good and accurate to me…
Grant (probably a shocked look on my face): REALLY? You know this guy predicted the same thing several years ago and was wrong…and that Jesus says no one knows the time…and even in Acts 1, we are told to not focus on this stuff, but to….
John: yeah, to share the gospel with others. I know that.
Grant: Well, great. See, to me Jesus is pretty straightforward: we don’t know the time, and don’t worry too much about it because we have a job here right now.
John: Yeah, true…but I dunno…

The conversation eventually ended. So here we had a confessed follower of Jesus, who clearly knew Scripture, that was still sucked in…still trapped…perhaps missing the point…

Are you so preoccupied with eschatology that you are missing the clear mandate from Jesus?
Are you using the “end of the world” as a crutch to not do anything about, or care about, this world now?

May we be people who focus on the things Jesus wants us to focus on: the here and now.
May we long for His Kingdom to “come on earth as it is in heaven”.
And may we be the prophetic voice that lives out the clear mandate to take the Good News to the world, for indeed, no one knows the day or the hour.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Stories that Feed Your Soul," by Tony Campolo

My book review of "Stories that Feed Your Soul'" by Tony Campolo, as a contributor of such for,

Stories have always been a medium used to capture the hearts and imaginations of listeners. I was first taught the doctrine of “incarnation” in seminary. This doctrine teaches that God became flesh in Jesus Christ in order to save us. No matter how true this doctrine and simple statement of fact is, the implications of it made little difference in my life because it remained lodged in my head, a tick box to check off in matters of faith, and never went deep down into my soul.

Contrast this with the story (as opposed to the doctrine) of “incarnation” and you have a much different outcome. The dry, abstract, truth statement of something God has done now becomes a lively, fresh, demonstrative reality that changes our lives. Story and narrative truth have a way of delivering us from a mental, cognitive assent that doesn’t change our lives or behavior s all that much into a life-altering, game-changing reality.

In Tony Campolo’s new book, “Stories that Feed Your Soul”, what we find is a bunch of unique, short stories designed to show us what happens when the sometimes abstract nature of God’s incarnation becomes “flesh and moves into the neighborhood”, as Eugene Peterson would say. I have always been fond of Campolo’s writings. He is a major mentor and influencer in the life of Shane Claiborne, who has in turn been a major influencer for me. Therefore, by default, I feel like his theological grandkid. So when I was asked to do a review on his book, I immediately jumped at the opportunity.

In this book, Campolo uses an array of short stories that deliver some graphic implications of theological truths. Short stories on justice, love, mercy, and grace abound. He uses illustrations from old time saints of the faith from eras long ago, to contemporary illustrations including his own experiences. I believe he writes this book in such a way that you are supposed to read and digest a couple of these short stories in effort to hear what God is trying to speak to you through each one.

I highly recommend this book if you need a break from traditional, theological writings and need to hear fresh stories that put meat on theological convictions. It’s always good to know you are not alone…that your stories are similar stories of others being led by the same God….and that the reign of God’s Kingdom is indeed happening right here, right now through “small acts with great love”.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

"Justice" and Osama bin Laden

The death of Osama bin Laden has created quite a stir in the broader Evangelical community. While nationalistic reactions have been fairly consistent: joy, satisfaction, and patriotic sentiments; the reaction hasn’t been quite as consistent with American Christians. Reactions ranging from “rot in hell”, to “judgment day Osama!” to “justice was served”, to “love your enemies” all have been proclaimed. In the death of someone considered to be an evil person, it is amazing to see how those indwelled with the Holy Spirit have responded.

York Moore, at Urbana Missions Conference in 2009, shared his testimony with a stadium full of Christian college students. He described vividly his conversion, but even more vividly his “conversion within his conversion”. Meaning, he found Jesus initially…and later began to see injustices in this world and had a conversion experience within his conversion, as an already Christian, that changed the course of his life. When I share my testimony, I have a similar conversion story to tell. I was saved…and then as God began to change my heart, I learned things He was passionate about anew. I can remember it vividly, that is, my “conversion within my conversion”. I was in an empty restaurant at like 11pm reading the Sermon on the Mount. And the words of this most famous sermon Jesus gave jumped out at me like I was reading it for the first time. Things like, “You heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’… But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” I read, “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” I read many other things…and at the end of this sermon Jesus says, “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock.” My world changed then and there.

The Sermon on the Mount was pie in the sky. Nice statements with abstract truth, perhaps..but nothing to build your life around. Unrealistic. Too hard. Too bold. But Jesus changed my heart that night. Little by little, He began to show me that these things can be followed through His power and Spirit. He used that last verse: whoever hears these things I am saying (i.e. love your enemies, bless your enemies, etc.) and actually practices/does them, I will liken to a wise man as a catalyst for seeing that His teachings can be followed. He later says, whoever doesn’t do these things is a fool. That night my “conversion within my conversion” started. And still continues to this day.

How does this have anything to do with Osama’s death? To me, it has everything to do with it. The mandate in Scripture is clear.

If a choice between love or hate..its love.
A choice between mercy or judgment…its mercy.
A choice between loving our enemies or killing our enemies..its love.
A choice between unconditional forgiveness or ‘just’ retribution…its forgiveness.
A choice between an eye for an eye or grace…its grace.

Many said that they were initially “joyful” or “happy” or “satisfied” or felt a sense of “justice being executed” when they heard of Osama’s death. Honestly, I didn’t feel that at all. Of course I am eager to rid the world of evil, however, I am sober in how that is done, who does it, and why they do it the way they do it. And what it boils down to is this: I never want anyone to die apart from God...furthermore, I don’t want someone to die at the hands of other humans on their dictated timetable, and that goes for “good” or “bad” humans alike…I hurt when I hear a child is aborted. I hurt when I hear someone dies accidently prematurely in a car accident. I hurt when a soldier is killed defending a country, or when an Afghan civilian is killed by a bomb that missed its target. I hurt when someone on death row gets executed (and later is found to be innocent). I actually hurt when Osama died. Death hurts because there are no do over’s. No second chances. And if any of the situations I mention above happens…that person’s chance to repent and be saved has ended.

But regardless of my desire that “none should perish, but all repent and live”, I have serious questions about having any ounce of celebration, or a sense of justice, or a sense of joy/satisfaction from someone dying…even someone like Osama. And here is my biblical understanding of why I have a hard time with this.

1. The Gospel. The heart of the gospel is this: we are all enemies of God, separated from Him but through the blood of the only just person who has ever lived: Jesus. This is clear in Scripture. I am an enemy of God apart from Jesus. Osama is an enemy. It’s a level playing field. Furthermore, the Sermon on the Mount highlights just how depraved and sinful we are. Jesus says that if we have hate in our heart, we have murdered. If we have lust in our heart, we have committed adultery. Not one of us is exempt from this, not one of us have fulfilled this. Only Jesus has. And that’s the point. I am a murderer. I am a liar. I am an adulterer. And this is true whether or not I have actually committed the crime, so to speak. I am guilty because my heart has done it. I am no more innocent, or less guilty, than Osama. So when we say that Osama got “his justice”, “his just judgment”, we fail to see the evil and depravity in our own hearts. We are no different than Osama. This is radical, I know. But this is biblical.

2. God is the Just Judge, Not Man. The Bible is clear: its not our place to judge. Again in the Sermon of the Mount we hear Jesus say, “Do not judge, lest you be judged….how ever you judge will be given back to you…why do you focus on others..take the plank out of your own eye.” Romans 12 says, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but [rather] give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance [is] Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Here we see that vengeance (i.e. retributive justice) is for God to handle, not you or me. Instead, keeping consistent with the ethic Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount of “loving our enemies”, God tells us to actually take care and provide for our enemies. This is radical. This is revolutionary. By doing this we take the higher road and leave it up to God to satisfy judgment. It further highlights that God alone is truly just to judge. Not me. Not you. James tells us in the second chapter of his epistle that: “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Even Jesus (who is the only earthly person who ever lived that is just enough to judge) says this: “I did not come to condemn (i.e. judge) the world, but to save it.” I really could go on and on, but this will suffice for now.

What’s my point? Death is the ultimate form of judgment, correct? If God alone is only able to execute “just judgment”, how can we be pleased, happy, or satisfied when anyone dies, or gets murdered, assassinated, or killed, by man. No matter how “just” it is perceived. God alone should be the author and finisher of life. Not man. God executes retributive justice (because he alone is just), we are called to mercy, love, and grace and to leave the rest to God. The choosing of taking life: whether through abortion, through capital punishment, war, or assassination is taking the job of God into our own hands. And the twisted part about this is that we feel ok about doing this because we feel justified in doing it. If a mass murderer is executed on death row, we think that is justice. An “eye for an eye.” But what about the guy on death row that gets executed that is later exonerated by new evidence. Is that just? We think it is justice when Osama, the brain behind the killing of thousands of people, is taken out. Its justice!, we proclaim! But when hundreds of Afghan civilians die in order to deliver on this end, is that justice for them? Is the killing of Afghan civilians, who had nothing to do with Osama, just? Do the ends always “justify” the means? Jesus ends the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” moral standard. He ends it because no one can satisfy or live up to it. As Gandhi once said, “eye for an eye, the whole world goes blind.”

Of course the argument can be made that the killing of Osama was God executing his judgment on him. Perhaps. But how do you know? What lens are you looking through to determine something only God knows? And what deaths are God’s judgment, and what others are “unfortunate” and not God’s judgment? Especially when Jesus lays out the playing field for us that all are enemies of God. If this is true, and the Bible says so, wouldn’t all death then be considered God’s judgment? If so, why are we quick to say that Osama’s death was God’s judgment, but the people who died in the Twin Towers aren’t God’s judgment? This argument drawn out to the only really logical conclusion (except if you take the “holier than everyone else” approach), is that God would have also been executing judgment on people in the Twin Towers too. Or in Darfur. Or anywhere else when death has happened.

3. Ability to Repent. People often ask me why I am against the death penalty. And besides the arguments I have already laid out above, its simple: anytime death is determined by man, it takes away time and the ability of someone to repent. God desires that “none should perish, but that all would repent.” That person on death row that gets executed today is unable to repent tomorrow. Osama is unable to repent today. My personal feeling is that every human, “good” or “bad”, should have the longest time possible to repent. So I feel terrible when someone gets murdered and wish that person had more time to live and repent if they hadn’t already. But continuing the cycle of violence and taking of life, to then execute the murderer (eye for an eye), we take away that same opportunity for that person. Death is the ultimate form of judgment.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against executing some form of justice for people who do things wrong, or commit atrocious acts of evil. I am all for punishing an evildoer through whatever government system is in place to do that (conditionally that is). However, I am only in favor of punishment up to, but not including, death. Once death is a part of punishment determined by the government or by man, we cross a line we are never meant to cross. Incarcerate someone for life? Fine. Execute them? Not fine.

Let us refrain from using the term “justice” for the death of anyone. Unless we use it for everyone.

My mentor, Shane Claiborne, once said something that has never left me. I know my argument above seems lengthy, but I know I could even say more…but I will leave you with Shane’s thoughts for now: If we think anyone, like a terrorist such as Osama (my add), is beyond the grace of God, we need to rip out half of our New Testament because it was written by a converted terrorist, Saul. Just think if Saul got his retributive, eye for an eye punishment due him before he had the chance to convert. Paul was a terrorist who killed Christians. Osama was a terrorist who killed Americans. I am a depraved sinner too. None of us are beyond God’s grace.