Friday, October 30, 2015

The Experience of Being Christian in a Post Christian Culture

Post-Christian - the loss of the primacy of the Christian worldview in political affairs. (Wikipedia)

 It seems many of us are having a hard time dealing with what that means exactly.  I don’t know all of what it means but I do know that it means Christians no longer enjoy a majority sufficient to drive public debate, legal battles and the discussion of contemporary issues with the kind of momentum it takes to consider the Christian perspective to be normative. The Christian perspective is no longer the gold standard in America.  Political candidates no longer see pursuing the Christian voting block as crucial to their election. The Christian worldview is being painted as archaic and more often reminiscent of where we “used to be.”  Christian viewpoints are viewed with suspicion and often considered synonymous with judgement. Churches and Christian institutions are being subtly warned even now that they should change their views on important social issues or lose favor from the government, social agencies and society in general.

Some may fear that it means Christianity is slowly fading away.  Well, Christianity is not going away but the experience of being a Christian is changing.  It’s not that some other religion is overtaking our country.  The transition is not to another religion but to no religion at all.  America, like much of Europe before it, is becoming more and more secular. Secular people are neither driven by nor interested in what God thinks about things.  They don’t believe in heaven or hell and don’t want to be told that their behavior is going to take them one place or another and they are completely unmotivated to change by the threat of eternal punishment.  They are not interested in what the Bible says about any issue.  They think Jesus was a fine fellow who got an unfair shake at the end of his life but in their view he is not risen, not real and not relevant in our culture.  The more Christians arrogantly try to paint the secular point of view as “stupid” the more Christianity will resemble a majority “has been” who can’t deal with adversity. 

Let’s be clear.  Christianity thrives in adversity. The declines we have experienced of late may be due at least in part to a lack of adversity.  Churches will continue to decline for a time because where as “polite culture” used to be defined in church settings, it now is defined in social settings where moral boundaries are more relaxed and no one is so rude as to suggest that there might be one standard that applies to all.  What will cause Christianity to thrive will not be adversity itself but will be our response to it.  I have three points to consider for how Christians might respond to the coming adversity. 

1. Don't build walls or fence off the church from the secular culture.

An interesting thing is happening as our culture becomes more and more secular.  I can’t prove it but it is observable.  I believe that as the church and the culture grow further apart on views of values, morals and issues of right and wrong the number of ‘fence riding’ Christians is going down.  It makes sense because as the chasm grows wider it becomes more difficult to stretch across. Behavior that would not be sanctioned at church is more and more difficult to hide because the secular culture insists that there is nothing to be ashamed of.  Biblical teaching you get at church is often unacceptable in the secular world.  They want to hear all about Jesus’ love and grace but don’t try to set limits on their behavior (even limits that are reflected in plain teaching in scripture) and now they have larger numbers to back up those claims.  As a church we either already have or will soon lose most if not all of our fence riders.  Fence riders don’t want to make a choice but if put in a position where they have to they will usually choose the path of least resistance.  Living a Christian life is like lighting a lamp in a dark room.  It is very visible and likely to be less and less popular.  It will be easier just to scoot off of the fence and disappear into the landscape of the world.  They will allow you to keep doing nice things for people as long as you don’t draw too much attention to it. Unfortunately, the life of a disciple of was never meant to be quiet and unassuming.  It was meant to attract attention to God’s glory even if the attention is unfriendly.

So what do we do with these emptying fences that are in our world?  What happens to the barriers between the church and a secular world?  We are told that these fences, these barriers erected between the flock and the wolves in the world are for our safety.  They are there to protect us therefore they need to be maintained even violently if need be.  Unfortunately again, the life of a disciple was never meant to be safe.  Our orders are to tear down the fences and move among the wolves taking the good news of Jesus to the sheep outside the fence.  We can’t just hole up in our church buildings and endure this current crisis.  We must move into the world, into the darkness and take the light there.  We must reach to those on the outside, grab a hand in holy friendship, build relationships, meet needs, help the hurting and the downtrodden and be Jesus in the world.

You can’t be salt of the earth by staying in a salt shaker.  You can’t be the light of the world by hiding under a bucket.  The darker the darkness, the more difference one small light makes.

2. Suffering and rejection are to be endured, not fought.

       When we are in with the wolves, there will be persecution. Often the persecution and rejection comes from among the ranks of the vocal, extremist secular and religious activists who ridicule conservative, religious believers because of what they see as the wrong stance on certain social and political issues.  You have heard or read public statements and possibly even endured personal attacks claiming that your view on some issue means you must ‘hate’ certain individuals. You didn’t vote for a non-Caucasian candidate so you must be racist and hate all people with differing skin tones. You oppose gay marriage so you must hate all homosexuals. You oppose abortion so you must hate women. The statements are extreme by design, intended to inflict injury, intended to evoke a defensive and ill-conceived response and often, that is exactly what they get – an emotional, poorly worded response that adds further fuel to the fire and continues to escalate the temperature of the public debate.

Two things are sure. 1. It is easy to make a fool of someone who quickly opens their mouth when goaded and 2. There is nothing to be gained for the sake of Christ when Christians add sharp, abrasive replies to sharp, abrasive critiques.  I know.  Its human nature.  When we are challenged or criticized we want to respond in like – “an eye for an eye.”  However, that was never what Jesus told us to do.  Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person, when struck on one cheek - turn the other as well, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,” (from Matt 5:38-44).   “Stand up for Jesus” can never mean “stand and fight for your rights as a Christian.”  It can only mean “stand and proclaim the good news of Jesus even if it means you go to jail or to your death.”   In scripture phrases that communicate “stand up for your faith” or “contend for your faith” are reserved for standing against false teachers and hypocrisy from within our own ranks.  It was never a recommended or even desirable strategy for coping with persecution from pagans, secularists or other religions.  Persecution and rejection were meant to be suffered and endured, quietly and with great love for the perpetrators.  The next time you see a political comment or hear a statement that is insulting to your faith or makes Christians look stupid put your discipleship into practice.  Refuse to reply in kind.  Love the person who posted the comment.  If you know them personally, go out of your way to do something nice for them.  Say something like, “I don’t always agree with you but I love your passion,” then add a gift card from Starbucks or another preferred merchant.  You may not feel vindicated but you will be bringing them the blessings of Jesus which brings Him closer to them, something a sarcastic response could have never done.

3. Disciples must be held to God's standards of holiness but secular people won't be.

          There can be no doubt that the change in what is considered moral and acceptable in modern times is a large scale paradigm shift from just 10 or 20 years ago and even more earth shattering for those who remember the moral climate in America in the 1940’s and 50’s.  The Post-Christian world values non-judgement, non-violence and healthy choices but they also embrace sexual freedom, the freedom to make one’s own choices and resist limits on behavior that is not inherently harmful to others.  This world largely accepts that consenting adults should be free choose whatever form of sexual expression that makes them happy.  They accept homosexuality, bisexuality and welcome the concept of same sex marriages.  They embrace the philosophy that gender is what you think it is and not determined by the body parts with which you were born.  They have legalized the recreational use of marijuana in several states and are not likely to stop until they legalize it in the entire nation.  Just a quarter century ago most of those things were considered by the majority (and often by law) to be evil, unnatural, immoral and even criminal in some cases.   It is troubling to see the distance which we have come but even more disturbing to think of things that are now considered criminal, unnatural and immoral that may become culturally acceptable within another quarter century.

          We grieve the way it used to be.  We mourn the fact that our views, biblical views on moral and political issues are becoming viewed as relics from a time when the Christian world view was the dominant influence in our culture and kicked aside as irrelevant, judgmental and draconian. Grieving is appropriate in cases of loss and this represents a loss especially when we think of the world our children and grandchildren will face.  There is a silver lining in this dark cloud however as we remember that the more our culture falls to the moral base line, the more permissive and accepting it is of what used to be considered deviant, the more it becomes like the culture of the 1st through 3rd centuries in the Greco-Roman world and that is precisely the world that first received the gospel of Christ.

          In the mean-time, we must remember that while God expects all to please Him and follow the nature of His creation, He also gives everyone the choice as to whether or not they will follow His leading.  From the very beginning of time He has allowed those who would walk away to follow their own passions and desires to do so and often with little consequence beyond the ordinary and eternal.  We have to remember that our sanctions and cautions only hold influence over those who have an interest in following God’s paths.  We can instruct and inform from scripture those who wish to know Jesus and those who long for His will but for those who don’t believe or don’t believe as we do those instructions are merely going to fall on deaf ears.  They even sometimes feel judgmental and offensive.  We have to remember that God values sinners.  He loves even the vilest moral offender and our responsibility is not to tell him where he is wrong at least not at first.  Our first and most important responsibility to the sinner is to tell him he is loved; loved like crazy by God who wants him to come home.  Let’s make that our message to a post-Christian world.  Love first, then share, then disciple.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Religious Freedom?

            There has been much stir of late about the various state legislatures passing laws loosely being described as “Religious Freedom” laws.  They seem to be a response by conservative law makers to the anticipation of a Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage that will most likely result in mandating that every state allow same sex marriage.  The gist of the law appears to be that business owners can refuse services to a person or a couple or group representing beliefs and/or behaviors to which the business owner or service provider objects on the grounds of religious views.  The example often cited is the one where the owners of a wedding cake business  refused to make a wedding cake for the wedding reception of a same sex couple. The owners refused services to the couple on the grounds that their union, though at the time legal, violated the owner’s religious views on homosexuality.  

            The discussion has added fresh inflammation to an already sensitive area of public discourse.  One side sees the legislation as protection for those who disagree with the concept of same sex marriage on religious grounds.  While the orthodoxy of all three major religions in America (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) shares the view that same sex relationships are immoral and outside the limits God places on sexual expression, the common view is that this legislation is about protecting the free expression of the Christian faith. Those who share this view believe that people of faith should not be legally required to participate in or validate beliefs or behavior that, legal or otherwise, stands in violation of their religious views.   The wedding cake business is one example but others abound.  Restaurants, resorts, reception venues, churches and ministers will all be scrutinized to see if sexual preference will be an issue over which they might be willing to create public stir over moral views. 

            The other side of the public debate tags this legislation as not just allowing but promoting discrimination against the LGB/T community.  They cite the plight of pre-civil rights African-Americans being denied service in restaurants and retail venues because of the color of their skin.  They fear that these laws will be seen by some as permission for the open persecution of gay and lesbian individuals and couples. Refusing to make a wedding cake is bad enough they say but what if it comes to refusing emergency medical services or a life-saving organ transplant based on sexual orientation? 

            The public debate will certainly rage on but each person of faith will need to come to their own personal stance on the issue.  In my personal reflection on the issue I have found that it is not easy to reach a resolution I feel at peace with.  In scripture the same God who eats and fellowships with prostitutes also condemns those who are greedy and dishonest.  That to some would seem contradictory but it is actually consistent with God’s purpose and design.  He is always pursuing the lost with loving offers of mercy and grace but challenging the faithful to higher levels of compliance with His will.                

            So what is the proper Biblical view on such an issue?  How should Christians position themselves in the public debate?  Before I go further I feel the need to remind you that I do not hold myself up as the one who defines the Christian or even the Church of Christ position on anything.  I could say I define the Tripp family position on such things but I would need to get Lenore’s permission before doing so!  My objective here is not to tell anyone what they should believe about such things.  I just wish to give fuel to the discussion and make points that each might want to consider in formulating their own position.

            Landing on a position with which to frame the public debate is difficult given our culture’s obsession with sex and insistence on the free expression of one’s sexual desires.  It is also difficult when we see that Jesus ate with prostitutes and chose common sinners to be his closest followers.  Pair that with the fact that while he openly fellowshipped with sinners he often had open disdain for the pious who he called self-righteous and hypocrites.  But that seems to be a consistent thread between Jesus and the Spirit led authors of the New Testament.  Welcome the sinner with open arms in the love of Christ but hold believers to the high standard of holiness of being “imitators of God therefore as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us…” (Eph. 5:1-2).  It is clear that spirit-filled believers in the New Testament are held to a much higher standard than those who are outside of the body of Christ.  The objective is never to force the unbeliever to follow Christian values and views but instead to reach to them with God’s love and forgiveness.  Once they are touched by the amazing love God has for them and they respond to the offer of forgiveness by committing themselves to life in Christ then they must consider what it is like to “take off the old and put on the new” (Eph. 4:22-23).

            We have another thing coming if we believe that we can be relevant in an evangelistic way by requiring the un-churched to look and act like us before they understand God’s desire for them to be holy.  As we consider how to form an opinion on “Religious Freedom” we need to remember the foundational call of all Christians is to “go and make disciples of all nations” NOT to ‘demand that the world follow the teachings of scripture and accept only those who agree with you.’ Any view that challenges to objective of making disciples in light of the offer of love and forgiveness just might be the wrong view.

            So ‘what would Jesus do?’  Let’s look at an example and see how the Lord would have us to respond in light of his will.  Let’s say that Barbara is a dedicated, godly Christian woman who is also a real estate agent.  She is approached by two men who make no effort to hide the fact that they are a couple and wish to use her expertise to assist them in buying a home in the area.  Let’s say Barbara lives in a state where it would be within her rights to refuse service to them based on their sexual orientation.  What would be the right thing, the godly thing, the Christ-like thing for her to do?

            Her basic options are to either refuse services because she might feel that helping them find a home would be seen as approving of their lifestyle, validating a path that might lead to their eternal destruction or agree to help them in hope of building a relationship that might in some way draw them closer to the Lord.     

            You are welcome to differ with me but it seems obvious that when dealing with ‘sinners’ and unbelievers, Jesus and his followers in the New Testament nearly always chose enlightening, loving, healing relationships over the hands off approach.  When there were exceptions it was because of complications (hypocrisy, ulterior motives, evil intent – see the story of Elymas in Acts 13:6-12).  Jesus routinely broke with cultural conventions and built relationships to people others would have ignored (see the Canaanite woman – Matt. 15:21-28, the sinful woman – Luke 7:36-50, the woman at the well – John 4:1-26, and others).  His example to us was to value people who are struggling with sin, honor their strides toward godly thinking and godly actions and readily forgive others of their offenses as quickly as possible.

            In a recent commentary on the issue, a friend of mine, Eric Johansen suggested a fine guideline.  He said that if the service violates ones conscience then it might be refused (e.g. a Christian counselor being asked to do relationship counseling for a same sex couple). However if the service does not violate the conscience (baking a cake or looking at homes) then it should be done regardless of the customer/client in the spirit of directing the light of God into a place that needs it. I think putting the emphasis on the service rather than on the lifestyle of the customer/client is an excellent way of looking at it and a great way to shine the light of Christ to a world that needs him.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Can Tragedy Bring Us Together?

Many of us who were aware of world events in the 1980's will remember the epic words of Ronald Reagan as he stood at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin and challenged the leadership of the USSR and especially Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!" 

The wall that then separated West Berlin and East Berlin had became a symbol of oppression and bondage.  It was a reminder of the acrimony and mistrust between the east and the west after the fall of Germany at the close of World War Two.  It divided a community that had needed one another to heal from the blight of the Nazis and the war that nearly destroyed them.  When the wall was torn down not long after Reagan's now famous speech, Berliners were once again united and eventually Germany was brought together again as an independent nation now proud and strong. 

We may not have large block and mortar walls dividing friends, families and communities these days but there are many walls among us.  These walls are made in the clash of opposing world views,  polarizing ideologies, and inflexible beliefs.  They are coated on both sides with sharp rhetoric and the tops are lined with barbs of blame and vitriol.  When on one side of the wall it is easy to hate those on the other side and define them by their most extreme words and behavior. It is a simple thing to dehumanize people we don't know or care to know. From those we dehumanize we feel justified to withhold any and all forms of human love and compassion.  The walls weaken our schools and neighborhoods.  They divide our cities and communities.  They polarize political parties and blur a national identity. 

These walls are strangling our society at every level diluting us from a hardy melting pot of cultures and world views bound by a common vision and purpose to a thin fractured society too blinded by the structure of our own world view to see the beauty in that of others.  From the halls of congress to city hall we witness acrimony and asperity spread across the airwaves and the internet from various sides of the walls that exist.  Whether the topic is taxes or pipelines, abortion or drugs, marriage or sexual identity, people are most comfortable speaking with those within their walls while taking shots at those on the other side. In so doing they hope to bring change by inflicting injury, a proposition that seems destined to ultimate failure.  Meanwhile our communities pay the price.  Systemic relationships at the community level are being held together by used chewing gum and cheap masking tape.  Political correctness and pretense take the place of genuine human emotion and protests take the place of real efforts to bring people together.

Having been a member of the clergy for many years now I am no stranger to navigating these walls.    Recently, members of the church where I minister  had what has become a very high profile tragedy occur in their family.  The tragedy triggered a visceral response from many around the world on issues of sexual and gender identity.  As the rhetoric swirled, a giant spotlight landed on the ugly wall between conservative Christianity and the LGBTQ community.  Commentary from both sides of the wall was harsh, filled with blame and bashing. One side chanted, "Your beliefs kill children!" While the other side responded, "Your glorification of suicide as martyrdom kills children!" Both sides have their say, score their points, and celebrate with the like minded while the wall grows larger and larger. 

I wonder if anybody on either side (besides me obviously) has ever stopped to ask, "What if the greatest problem is not in the beliefs, rhetoric or behavior of others but rather might actually be the wall itself.  I can't help but wonder what would happen if people on both sides of the wall would stop thinking up ways to vent their anger toward the other side but instead just reach over the wall and grab a hand on the other side.  Just holding it, not grabbing a hand with the hopes of pulling someone over but taking time to feel the warm flesh of the other, to get to know them and their story, to try to understand where their hearts are, to accept them even if they don't agree with them. I believe that kind of behavior would begin to melt walls in our communities.  We could see walls of racial differences, religious differences, cultural differences and others begin to crumble and fall. In our time we could see real healing begin in our communities. Political correctness would be replaced with real human compassion and caring.  It would make a real difference in how people relate to each other.  We could see each other not as a Christian people or Jewish people, gay people or straight people, black people or white people but just as people.

I don't expect those on the extremes to care much about what I am saying here.  They're too busy lighting up social media, planning their rallies and devising schemes to destroy the other side.  But I hope those of us in the middle of the extremes, those of us who are tired of the walls, those of us who want to love people despite our differences will see it differently.  I am hoping those are the people who will approach the wall and reach over, grab a hand and start the process. 

Lets tear down these walls!