Things to Do Today

May 29, 2009

Inspired by this lady who recently passed away from leukemia, here is your to-do list.  Good luck.

  1. Appreciate something.
  2. Be a force for good.
  3. Believe in something bigger than yourself.
  4. Hug a kid.
  5. Treat your body at least as well as you treat you car.
  6. Listen to a new idea, whether it turns out to be right or not.
  7. Give someone something they need before they ask for it.
  8. Bring joy to somebody.
  9. Ask for help.
  10. Add something to this list.

Got all that? Good.

Now off you go.


It Is What It Is?

May 14, 2009

Thank you to Mike Cope for planting the seed of this post:

In Illusions of Innocence, restorationist theo-historians Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes write:

“The restoration perspective has worked in American life in two important ways. Some Americans have enshrined first times as an ideal to be approximated and even as a kind of transcendent norm that stands in judgment on the ambiguities of the present age. In this case, the myth of first times has been a beacon summoning Americans to perfection. On the other hand, some Americans have fully identified their religious denomination or even their nation itself with the purity of first times. The illusion thereby fostered in the minds of these Americans is that they are an innocent and fundamentally natural people who, in effect, have stepped outside of history, thereby escaping the powerful influences of history, culture, and tradition. These Americans therefore have often confused the historic particularities of their limited experience with universal norms that should be embraced, they have thought, by all people in all cultures and all times.”

The point they make is valid, if self-condemning.  In essence, they find a strong correlation between how Americans view the Constitution with how they view Scripture.  Is the Constitution a normative, rigid framework for government to be interpreted strictly and literally, right down to the punctuation marks?  Or is the Constitution a living document, a product of its time and place to be interpreted based on what America needs it to be now?  Is government free to act in unconstitutional ways when they decide they “need to,” or does doing so threaten the legitimacy or even the very existence of that government?  Is the Constitution sufficient to govern America in any time under any circumstances, or do we live in a “post-Constitutional” culture that demands a new way of thinking and doing government?  Ultimately, how a person answers these questions determines whether the person is conservative or liberal politically.

That same “strict constructionist” vs. “living document” debate has been raging in hermeneutical circles in churches of Christ for most of the last three decades, fueled in no small measure by Hughes and Allen among others.  The issue at hand is about the nature of Scripture itself.  What is the Bible, why is it here, and what do we do with it?  Allen and Hughes argue that, like with the Constitution, those who advocate a “strict constructionist” view of Scripture are laboring under an illusion of innocence — that is, the rules of history and cultural change simply do not apply. Further, they argue that the norms of the “first times” cannot be replicated or even approximated. Too much time has gone by, and those who believe otherwise are ignorant, willfully or otherwise.

Now to be sure, the “strict constructionist” view of Scripture has its flaws, particularly when the Bible is seen as a sort of “Constitution of the Christian faith” as one of my college professors described it.  Times have changed. Society’s needs are different in 21st century Kentucky than they were in 1st century Corinth.  What we do as Christians is, like it or not, an expression of who we are.  To pretend otherwise is to be dishonest with God.

But the “living document hermeneutic” is likewise rife with problems.  For one, it completely misses the nature of divine revelation, particularly in the Old Testament.  The Law of Moses lasted for 1500 years.  During that time, Israel went from being a nomadic people wandering the desert to being a confederation of tribes, then a kingdom, then two kingdoms, then an oppressed minority within any number of world empires.  Times changed.  But for all their changing circumstances, God only gave Israel one Moses.  Instead of sending prophets to give new laws for new circumstances, God sent Isaiah and company to show how the Law of Moses still applied.  The prophets were the original Restoration Movement.

Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus sent His apostles to “preach the gospel to every creature.”  How that gospel inpacted a person’s life was different from individual to individual, from city to city, and from time to time.  But the gospel itself is timeless.  The principles that Jesus taught — that the apostles explained to Corinthians, Romans, and Colossians, that carry down to us today in Scripture — never change.

The “living document hermeneutic,” then, asks the wrong question.  It wants to know “Does the principle in Scripture still apply today?”  The answer is yes.  Always.  Without exception.  “How does the principle apply” might vary from time to time and place to place, but the principle itself stands — always and forever.

The Constitution itself gives us a hint as to why that might be.  Article V, section 1, says that whenever Cnogress deems necessary, it (or the states) can propose amendments to the Constitution.  Those amendments, if ratified, become just as much a part of the Constitution as the rest of it.  This process has been carried to completion 27 times in American history.

That’s the difference.  The Constitution recognizes its own fallibility, while the Bible does not.  The Bible does not have, nor has it ever had, an amendment process. We the people have no right to decide whether God’s decision should stand, or to change it once it is made.  God asks us to trust that His Word is all we need no matter where we live, or when.

This calls from great hermeneutical care.  We must never elevate the traditions of men to the level of principles of God.  Likewise, we must never dismiss one of God’s principles based on which men stand in apporval of them.

Love — Not Who, But Why?

May 13, 2009

According to 12th century monk Bernard of Clairvaux, the love that God commands is nothing new to human beings. In fact, it is one of the “four natural affections.”  Nature itself dictates that we have a degree of love, if only love of oneself.  We are all capable of acting in what we believe to be our own best interests, or as Paul puts it, “No one hates his own body.” Bernard argues that narcissism — “first-degree love” — is in essence the schoolmaster which brings us into fellowship with God.

Sometimes, that enlightened self-interest even extends to the benefit of those around us.  As such, our love grows by degrees to include our neighbor, or even God.  Even the narcissist sees the wisdom in the love of the Survivor contestant, acting in concert and in ways that are mutually beneficial, until such time as circumstances dictate severing the alliance. The Survivor loves, so long as that loves serves his other goals.

Exposure to the God of the Bible often creates this kind of love for God. Reading of God’s justice, His lavish vengence on His enemies, and His equally lavish rewards for His children can motivate a person to enter into a relationship with God. This “Social Gospel” love, however, is still not much different than narcissism, as it is motivated not by what is good for God, but by what is good for me. I love God, I serve God, I even love and serve my fellow man because in the end I stand to gain from the transaction. If loving you or God is good for me, then I will. But when it ceases to be such, my love for you or God ends. This is “second-degree love.”

Bernard argues that for Christian maturity to advance beyond mere enlightened narcissism, what has to change in the perosn is not who or what they love, but for whose sake the love is given.  “Third-degree love” is loving God not for my own sake, but for His.  This love recognizes God for who He is and seeks to return to Him the love He has shown to us. “Whoever praises God for His essential goodness, and not merely becasue of the gifts He has given, loves God for God’s sake and not selfishly.”

But even “third-degree love” rings a bit hollow. After all, part of what makes God God is His work as Creator. To love God for His own sake, but to insist that His creation is only worthy of such love as it can earn by being useful strikes quite a hypocritical note. To demand that something to which God has given His love unconditionally must somehow prove iteself to us places us in judgment over God Himself. This demand also gives rise to the belief that God’s love for us is similarly earned, creating in the Christian the mind of the Pharisee rather than the mind of Christ.

So even as we learn to love God for who He is, “love God for His own sake” in the words of Bernard, we must also take the next step to what Bernard calls “fourth-degree love.” We must learn to love ourselves again, but this time for God’s sake.  Bernard compares this love to becoming “like a red-hot iron, forgetting its own nature and becoming like the fire itself.” When we love “for God’s sake,” our love is motivated not by what is good for us, but by what is good for Him. Then we learn to love what God loves — and not just when doing so suits us.

When the “why” of love informs the “what,” narcissism is replaced with fellowship.

Proactive Benevolence

May 6, 2009

The current Christian Chronicle poses the question of how churches should respond to benevolence requests, especially during hard economic times. Ironically, as need increases, available resources dwindle. So churches have to be compassionate, but careful. We have to be good stewards of what God has given us, but we also have to take advantage of what God gives us in terms of opportunities to do good.

The catch is that in my experience — both as full-time Benevolence Minister for a congregation in downtown Nashville and later in eleven years of full-time pulpit ministry — people who ask for help are the ones who are least likely to benefit from what churches typically provide.

Part of the problem is in the recipients themselves. Some are, to put it bluntly, scammers. They find their mark and strike. Others have been dependent on others for so long they don’t have any ability to care for themselves. In many cases, they have even lost the interest in doing so. One client in particular I remember once said she needed the church to pay her light bill so she could pay for her cable TV. This isn’t dishonest or sinful; it’s just stupid. And as long as these folks know someone will take care of them, they have no reason to change.

The real tragedy is, the people who could most benefit from a “hand up” from a church are those least likely to get it. Either they don’t know to ask for help, or they assume that if they do ask for help the church will assume they are either a dependent or a scammer. Sometimes pride gets in the way of asking for help — financial or otherwise.

But a significant part of the problem lies in how churches go about their benevolence work.  Typically, the process of a church addressing a benevolence need begins when the person asks for help.  Herein lies the rub.  In my experience, beneviolence cases are much like calls for pastoral counseling.  By the time you get to my office, you need more help than I an equipped to provide.

Acts 3:6 is instructive on this topic.  There, Peter tells the beggar at the temple, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you — in the name of Jesus, rise up and walk.”  Too much of church benevolence is aimed at making us feel better about ourselves by how “helpful” we are.  But the reality is that much of what we call “help” actually does more harm than good.  Either we perpetuate dependence or we pay a “scammer” to go away, all the while believeing that being lighter on the pocket makes us “good people.”  In all my time in ministry, I have never known of a person to ask for money, get it, and be better off because they did.  Our objective is not to feel good about ourselves, but to actually help people.

If churches want to make a significant dent in the needs of their neighbors, instead of sitting back and waiting for the requests to come to us, we should instead go looking for opportunities to be helpful.  Benevolence should be proactive instead of reactive.  If we know of a neighbor who has fallen on hard times, going to them before they are forced to come to us maintains their dignity — allowing them to stand on their own two feet.

It also opens a door for a long-term, and perhaps eternal, relationship.