Jeff Haanen

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Theology

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Theology

A Light in the Darkness

 

“Again.” That was the headline the next day in The Denver Post. I first found out from a text message from my wife: “Shooting at Arapahoe High School.” I froze, and then checked the nearest TV screen at the rec center. For Colorado, it was an all too familiar scene. Students running out of a building led by a black-armored SWAT Team. Mothers embracing their children in tears. Disbelief hanging on the faces of teenage boys.

Except this time it was different – my own cousin was in the building that day. She heard the shots – “like somebody had dropped a big pan.” She hid in her classroom, and trembled when somebody shook the doorknob. On Friday, December 13, 2013, an unwelcome cloud eclipsed the sun, and Colorado was overshadowed by a familiar darkness.

Long ago, Mary could well identify with such darkness. Living under Roman occupation, Israel was captive to a foreign power, mourning in a “exile” from home, from justice, from the long-awaited Messiah. From a “suburban,” lower-income family, subject to larger cultural tides and winds, she was small, and powerless to change her world.

Yet Israel had a glimmer of hope. Maybe as a young girl she read on her daddy’s lap the prophecy, written long ago: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” But what light could there be amidst such pain and suffering?

One dark night, light spilled into Mary’s room. “Rejoice, you who are highly favored,” announced the angel Gabriel. “The Lord is with you.” An odd thing to say to a teenager in such a circumstance. Rejoice. She had good reason to be “greatly troubled.” What announcement could bring joy for her people, so accustomed to suffering?

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus,” the angel declared. “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

For centuries, Christians have looked to that teenage mother, and her baby boy, and described Advent with that brief, luminescent word: joy. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” “O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.” “Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies.” “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” Joy perhaps isn’t what Joseph was thinking that first Christmas, as he helped his fiancée recover and care for a newborn between the snorting of cattle and the dull bleating of sheep. But the light of heaven beamed from that grotto, nonetheless – God arrived in the midst of the confusion.

Yet it was joy, not despair, grumbling or lesser pleasures, that welled up in Mary’s heart (Luke 1:47). She had joy in all the everydayness of life – work, worship, cleaning the dishes. Even under the thumb of oppression, she fell on her bed, and perhaps hummed the words of Isaiah: “They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Or maybe Mary’s deepest happiness came simply from the angel’s first words “The Lord is with you.” Emmanuel, God with Us.

And God is not far from us today. He is not far from Arapahoe High School, or  the mourning parents of 17 year-old Claire Davis, who recently lost her battle for life in the hospital. He is not far from us when we experience crushing career disappointments. He is not far from our Christmas celebrations, too often laced with family tension. God, the Almighty One, has come to be with us, even as we are.

As Colorado suffers once again, this Christmas, we can cling to Him who “disperses the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows puts to flight.” Since we, along with Zechariah, have seen “a rising sun coming to us from heaven,” we can join the song of Mary and rejoice in God our Savior. Because in the distance we can still hear the echoes of angels, singing the praises of the Lamb, who will one day wipe every tear from our eyes.

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Theology

Jesus Set Priorities

 

We’d be less busy if we understood our callings. Knowing your calling allows you to say No to good, worthwhile things, simply because God has other things for you to do.

In Mark 1, Jesus is in Capernaum, near his hometown. He spends a day healing the sick and driving out demons. The next morning, Jesus awakes before dawn, “left and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” His disciples get up and begin frantically searching for him. There are demons to drive out, and people to heal! When they find him, in exasperated tones, they declare “Everyone is looking for you!”

Jesus replied: “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

Jesus tells his disciples he’s not going to stay and heal all the folks in Capernaum who needed his help. Did he care about them? Absolutely (Mark 8:2). But after prayer, he was very clear on his mission – to preach the Kingdom of God in other villages as well (Mark 1:38).

I recently interviewed Kevin DeYoung on his new book Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book on a (Really) Big Problem. We “freak out” about our kids, try to prove ourselves through big cars, houses, and promotions, and respond to every How are you? with a singular response: Busy. Americans have willfully put too much on their plates.

But DeYoung points out that Jesus set priorities. Even the son of God, who could have done it all, chose not to. He turned away from doing good things because he knew his mission. If this isn’t permission to say no the the 1001 activities we sign up for, what is?

At work, if we simply chose to do the most important work, and ignore (or at least postpone) the rest, our companies and organizations would thrive. Instead, we get busy and let ourselves be pulled this way and that – between email, side projects, or just long conversations. Because we never define (actually write on a piece of paper) what our God-given mission is (and the goals that mission entails), too often we spin our wheels and never leave the gate. A better way would be to clearly define our priorities – and let all the details that make us so busy stay on the sidelines, where they belong.

Two simple questions: (1) What is your top priority today? (2) What will you put on your “not to-do” list?

Photo: Overwhelmed

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Theology

Satisfying Work in the New Jerusalem

 

What’s heaven like? In Isaiah 65, God promises to create new heavens and a new earth, to undo a world of suffering and renew his beloved Jerusalem.

“See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.”

So what will this new Jerusalem be like? And is there anything we can do now to better reflect this new world? Isaiah 65 gives four key features of the new heavens and earth in this passage – and one that we hardly ever mention:

  1. Long Life. In the new Jerusalem, there will no longer be infants who live just a few days, or people who do not live out their years to old age. Untimely, tragic death will be no more, and life will reign (Is. 65:20).
  2. Peace and Justice. “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox…They will neither harm nor destroy on my holy mountain” (Is. 65:25). There will no longer be violence or destruction. Peace and justice will flow in the streets – and even the fields – of the new Jerusalem. Strong and weak, powerful and powerless, will sit at the table of fellowship, a vision not much different from Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision that one day “on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
  3. Renewed Family. No longer will women “bear children doomed to misfortune” but instead God will bless families and their descendants (Is. 65:23).
  4. Satisfying Work. Because we so rarely mention work in the context of heaven, I’ll quote Isaiah 65:22-23a at length: “They will build houses, and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain.”

There are two things to notice about this passage:

  1. The structure of the passage is built around Genesis 3 and 4. The new heavens and earth is a reversal of the effects of the Fall. Death was a result of sin (Gen. 3:19, Rom. 5:8), and Isaiah states God will reverse the effects of death with fruitful life (Is. 65:20). God curses both childbearing and work as a result of sin (Gen. 3:16-19), but both the family and work are restored in the new heavens and earth (Is. 65:22-23). Finally, one of the most devastating effects of the Fall is violence. Genesis 4 – when Cain murders his brother Abel – prefigures a world of injustice and bloodshed; Isaiah 65 envisions wolfs and lambs living side-by-side in peace.
  2. Satisfying work is at the center of the new heavens and earth. The reason God’s chosen ones “enjoy the work of their hands” is because the can live in the houses they built, and enjoy the fruit of the vineyards they planted. The very opposite of this is “laboring in vain” and having others live in the houses they built, and others eat the vineyards they plant. Now, I think the immediate context of this passage is a promise that foreign armies would no longer rule over Israel, and essentially plunder their wealth (homes and vineyards). But nonetheless, this passage makes it clear that seeing and enjoying the work of your own hands is central to shalom, to peaceful communities. (Ecclesiastes makes similar statements about the curse of toiling so that others might enjoy your work, and, conversely, the divine blessing of finding satisfaction in your work [Ecc. 2:17-18, 3:13]).

In this post, I wanted to just lay some biblical groundwork for discussing further questions about satisfying work down the road. But for now, I’d really like to get your feedback on a couple simple questions:

What makes for satisfying work? Or, perhaps more easily answered, what do you think are the core features of frustrating work? In what situations do you say, “That was a good day’s work?”, and when do you lament, “I accomplished absolutely nothing today?”

(Note: Thank you to Robert Gelinas and Colorado Community Church for asking us [the congregation] to memorize this passage. It’s well worth our in-depth reflection.)

Photo: Jerusalem Sunrise

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Theology

The Way of Nature, The Way of Grace

 

What really makes the work of Christians any different from the work of anybody else? Or put another way – how could we distinguish between the daily work of a Christian versus that of, say, a Muslim, secular humanist, Buddhist, or religious pluralist? Would we (or should we?) see a difference?

Some would say the actual work would be no different; work would just be done with a different motivation (a view I’ve disagreed with on this blog). Others would boil it down to the “three e’s”: excellence, ethics, and evangelism. However, I think there’s a problem with making these the distinguishing marks of the Christian’s work.

First, as best as I can tell, secularists, Muslims and other non-believers care about excellence just as much as Christians. They may do so out of the wrong motives – but nonetheless, I’ve often been amazed at the art, business structures, or literary achievements of my peers from other faith.

How about ethics? Again, I think there’s much truth in saying that Christians should outshine their peers in their ethical choices. They have a foundation for right and wrong that is founded on God’s revelation in Christ and a relationship with Him, not just a set of moral norms. However, I know many people of other faiths who are far more ethical than I am.  One of my favorite bloggers, Seth Godin, often surprises me with his moral vision and rapt encouragement for fellow “artists” and entrepreneurs. I regularly read The Economist – not exactly a haven of orthodoxy – and am also impressed by the moral vision of many of its non-Christian writers.

I think far too many Christians try to undermine the ethical goodness of their non-believing peers in a veiled attempt to root out hidden sin and show them their need for the gospel. I don’t think this is a very good strategy. Lesslie Newbigin, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, says:

“The Christian must tell [the gospel], not because she lacks respect for the many excellencies of her companions—many of whom may be better, more godly, more worthy of respect than she is. She tells it simply as one who had been chosen and called by God to be a part of the company which is entrusted with the story. She will indeed—out of love for them—long that they may come to share the joy that she knows and pray that they may indeed do so. But it is only the Holy Spirit of God who can so touch the hearts and consciences of others…”

There’s no need to try to unveil secret iniquities of others (don’t we already have plenty of our own?) and try to do the work of the Holy Spirit. Telling the story of the gospel is the task of the Christian, even as Christians work alongside of friends from other faiths, acknowledging the good work they do – work that is often better than our own.

Then it’s surely evangelism, right? Certainly, the words of the gospel are completely unique to the global Christian church – and they must be spoken. Yet far too often this becomes a project in changing the subject from expense reports, project deadlines, or lesson plans. What is it about the Christian faith that can drastically shape the actual work itself?

I believe one answer to this question is the way of grace.  Christian film-maker Terrence Malick, in his beautiful film Tree of Life, opens by contrasting the way of nature with the way of grace. The way of nature is tit for tat, it is just punishment, it is competition and survival of the fittest. But more than that, it is the way of the self – getting your own way, your own reward.  The way of grace, by contrast, isn’t worried about being overlooked, slighted, or insulted. It is content to simply give.

The Tree Of Life: Way Of Nature, Way Of Grace from Otto on Vimeo.

Expanding on Malick’s concept, I would say it is being so shaped by God’s undeserved favor that gifts flow from you to both friend and foe, business partner and business competitor, beloved co-worker and despised boss.

The biblical figure Joseph is a good example of the way of grace within the context of work. Sold by his brothers into slavery at a young age, he had every right to be angry and bitter. Yet we see a different response on at least four occasions:

  1. In Potiphar’s House. When made a slave in Egypt, Joseph was put to work in the house of a military official. It would have been easy to be despondent, depressed, or outright vengeful, but he instead worked with such diligence that the captain of the guard put him in charge of his entire estate (Gen. 39:4). Yet it wasn’t just a desire for excellence that propelled him. The narrator wants the reader to know Joseph’s success came as a gift of grace. The LORD was with him and “gave him success in whatever he did.” His work flowed out of his relationship with a gracious God who did not abandon him, even in his suffering.
  2. In Prison. Joseph was falsely accused of sexual harassment in the workplace, and, as such, got thrown in prison. Again, this was a devastating personal and career setback. He was working his way up the corporate latter, expecting perhaps to make the best of a bad situation, and instead he got severely punished for not even touching his boss’s attractive wife who was trying to sleep with him. So what did he do? File a lawsuit? No. Instead he entrusted himself to the God who was with him, and worked with such diligence “the warden put Joseph in charge of all those help in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there” (Gen. 39:22). Everybody in the prison benefited because his work became a gift of grace to all those suffering around him.
  3. Administering Grain During the Famine. Joseph finally got his chance to get even. He finally got his day before Pharaoh. The way of nature would have been to call attention to his unjust imprisonment and get Potiphar’s wife thrown behind bars. But for Joseph, there was none of that. When faced with the CEO, he spoke truth loudly, interpreted the times for him, and gave him such swift insight it earned him a #2 ranking in the entire corporation. And perhaps what’s more impressive is his follow through. Seven years of plenty came – and they stored grain. Then came the seven of famine. And Joseph – for 14 years – faithfully brought his plan of saving resources during a season of huge economic yield to fruition, because he knew it was the plan of God. When the developed world came to Egypt’s door for food, Joseph’s role as a government official and his faithful stewardship of that role could only be considered a gift of grace.
  4. When Being Reunited With His Family. Joseph had the opportunity to get even with his brothers – the ones who sold him into slavery. Indeed, the temptation for Joseph to use his positional power to punish those who did him so much wrong was immense (Gen. 44). But ultimately, in one of the most moving scenes in the Bible, Joseph forgives his brothers, and sends a lavish gift home to his father Jacob. The grace kept coming. And when reflecting on his painful career path, Joseph figured God had used even the evil of his brothers to bring about the good of saving lives during the famine (Gen. 50:20).  Joseph acknowledge that his pain was a conduit of God’s grace.

What would it mean for Christians to universally adopt the way of grace in work contexts? The company loses millions on a big investment your employee made – and when your boss comes knocking, you decide to take the heat. Another coffee shop moves in right next door to your own, and you offer help and encouragement to your competitor. Your boss consistently overlooks your achievements – and you decide to give extra time to the new capital campaign anyway. The union requires you to say until 4:00pm, but you look at your student, a 5th grade boy with a rocky home life and a “D” in math, and decide to stay late to help with his homework.

C.S. Lewis was once asked what makes Christianity different from all the world religions. “That’s easy,” he said. “Grace.” Every other world religion or philosophy at some point aligns with the way of nature – earning favor with God or others through personal merit. They are all a great climbing heavenward, beseeching the god’s (or other human’s) favor and getting what we deserve. The Christian God, however, comes down to earth, becomes a man, and gives his very life away to those who would scorn his sacrifice.  His foundational work on the cross is a gift of grace.

When Christians choose to do these acts of grace, they’re not done to be seen by others. They’re done out of gratitude; they’re done because the universe they live in is sustained by the unmerited gifts of a loving God. So, should they ever receive praise for what looks like “ethical behavior at work,” all they can do is point to the One who first gave to them.

Discussion question: Over 70% of Americans don’t like their work. But would you like your job more if today you gave a boss, a co-worker, a client or even a competitor a gift of grace? What would it look like to build giving into the very structure of your company or your daily routines?

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TheologyWork

Volunteering for Justice or Working for Justice?

 

Homelessness, immigration, poverty, access to health care, pollution, sex trafficking, educational reform, mass incarceration – the justice issues of our day are seemingly endless. The good news is that many evangelical churches are not only addressing these issues, but are encouraging their congregations to get involved. But as a whole, churches have adopted very limiting strategies for living out Amos’ (and Martin Luther King’s) cry to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” This is what I mean:

Typically churches will address a topic like poverty in a sermon series or at a conference, and afterward they will encourage participants to do one of two things: (1) donate to a local ministry, or (2) volunteer. If pastors can manage to convict hearts of the unacceptable injustices of our world, and that’s a big if, the “ask” is to give money or to go and volunteer once a month cleaning graffiti or packing food boxes.

Now, volunteering through a nonprofit to serve the poor is good. And so is giving money.  However, it leaves the other 45 hours of a parishioners work week untouched. On the church level, we’ve largely overlooked the centrality of work for bringing about justice.

Let me illustrate. A classic justice text is found in Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah, and most of the minor prophets, issue thundering critiques of injustice. But what kind of situations were the prophets addressing? Here are a few examples from Micah:

(1) “Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate together what they desire – the all conspire together” (Micah 7:3). Political rules were corrupt, accepting bribes and using power to advance their own interests. What’s the implied call to action? Volunteer through a local organization? Or is it a call for those working in government to maintain the highest ethical standards, never forgetting the weak whom the LORD cares for?

(2) “Am I to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house, and the short ephah, which is accursed? Shall I acquit a person with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?” (Micah 6:10-11). The critique here is of a business culture that has a single bottom line: maximize profit. Dishonest scales and false weights cheat consumers out of a fair price. Again, what’s the action point? For those who work in business, turn from dishonesty, set fair prices, make quality products, and let justice before the LORD drive business practices.

(3) A final example from Micah: “They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they defraud them of their inheritance” (Micah 2:2). Here the powerful take the fields and homes of the powerless. Again, I’d ask, how should we best address issues of predatory lending, affordable housing and even homelessness? Should we not first talk to Christians in finance, mortgage, and lending and see if we can’t build practices that get and keep the poor in affordable homes and restrain the temptation to “covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them?”

The point is simply this: pastors need to shift how they tell their congregations to get involved in justice issues to include both volunteerism and work. Volunteerism is good – America’s civic culture has always been strengthened by volunteers. But at work is where Christians (1) have far more time to address justice issues and (2) are in positions of influence to actually change structural realities.

For example, after a sermon series on immigration, why not encourage small business owners to hire immigrants as a practical way to show concern for the foreigner (Ex. 22:21)? In education reform, can we encourage teachers to spend extra time with students who struggle to read because God wants all young people to be able to read and hear his word? Could we encourage city officials to adopt environmentally friendly policies to care for God’s creation? Couldn’t we even encourage employees at gas stations or fast food restaurants (those without ‘power’) to serve customers as they would serve Christ himself, or be courageous and name the idols that drive unethical practices?

On a practical level, for pastors this means different sermon illustrations. It means different tables in the foyer that, for instance, gather Christian engineers to talk about building a beautiful, environmentally friendly, and community-building neighborhoods. It means publicly praying over your “royal priesthood” and commissioning them to be salt and light in the workplace. It means seeing your congregation not as a crowd of potential volunteers, but as teachers, nurses, construction workers, hotel employees, and marketers who have been called by God to bring about truth, beauty and justice through their vocation.

It means deeply believing James Davison Hunter’s words: “Fidelity to the highest practices of vocation before God is consecrated and in itself transformation in its effects.”

Discussion question: For pastors and ministry leaders, how might “working for justice” versus “volunteering for justice” change your calls to action?

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Theology

Why serving the common good isn’t enough

 

In past years there has been a renewed interest among evangelicals in “the common good.” Several years ago Gabe Lyons started a traveling conference called “Q,” which chose the tagline “ideas for the common good.” Andy Crouch, an editor at Christianity Today, recently counseled evangelicals to restore the historic phrase to our shared lexicon. A conference in Virginia was recently entitled Common Good RVA. This Is Our City regularly features stories about Christians who are making “common good decisions” in their city. It’s as if evangelicals have self-consciously come out of their narrow religious enclaves and now are finally caring about elements of urban life we share with our non-believing neighbors.

But there’s something awry here. 

The problem doesn’t lay in the actual actions themselves. Cleaning a beach or planting a community garden is well and good. But what makes Christians unique in the world? Is it these types of “common good decisions?” Absolutely not. What makes Christians unique is the harmony between serving the common good and speaking the words of the gospel.

Secular people or people from other faiths make these kinds of “common good decisions” all the time. Take, for example, the Acumen Fund. The Acumen Fund is a non-profit that uses entrepreneurial ventures to address poverty throughout the word. According to their website, they’ve impacted over 100 million lives. They invest in social business, and have alleviated poverty through small business for people stretching from Cambodia to Peru. Health, water, housing, energy, and agricultural products. All accessible to millions because of their work. And at least from their website, it looks like God isn’t terribly important  to their organization. (The examples could go on and on, from TED presenters to the work of the Gates Foundation.)

Now, Christians would rightly say that this is an expression of “common grace” – God providing for the world even through non-believers. And I believe Christians should rejoice in any and every step toward justice and peace, whether at the hands of believers or non-believers. Christians are right to work alongside of anybody and everybody in bringing about relief for the poor. But I would still ask: What difference is there between this “common good decision” and that of a Christian?

What makes Christians unique is not their good deeds, but the message they bear of a man whose incarnation, life, death and resurrection has permanently altered human history and now demands the loyalty of every human being. Christians are indeed called to good works (Eph. 2:10), but they are called to do them “in the name of Jesus.”

This idea may be controversial, even for my fellow Christians, but if good deeds are not done “in the name of Jesus,” they can’t truly be called Christian. There is a deep tendency in the past several years among evangelicals to stress building community and engaging the broader world, but there hasn’t been a concurrent revival of interest in evangelism. But Christians who seek to live faithfully for God in the world must always marry their “common good decisions” with the words of the gospel. This doesn’t have to be annoying or necessarily happening every day, but we must give all men a reason for the hope we have (1 Pet. 3:15), whether we design residential homes or fix cars. The pendulum has swung the other way, and it’s time we brought it back to the center.

Consider the pattern of Jesus in the book of John.  When Jesus healed a paralyzed man in the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-14), he immediately explained his actions through teaching (5:16-47). The next chapter Jesus makes a “common good decision” by feeding 5,000, but then he also tells everybody that he is the bread of life. His miracles were meant to verify the truth of the gospel. Again in chapter 9, he heals a blinds man, and then talks about spiritual blindness. He always brought together his actions with his words.

In contemporary evangelicalism, many pastors have gone bonkers over “common grace” and “common good decisions”, but in the process some have forgotten the very public role of “special grace”, that message of God’s redemption in Jesus that is meant for the whole world.

We should not over-react again and then say that the fine people at the Acumen Fund, for example, aren’t important, or that Christians should only be evangelists and abandon the life the world. This would be a bad idea.  But what makes Christians unique in the world is the gospel. Our common good decisions should point to the gospel, and our words should make it explicit.   If we leave out the actions, the words of the gospel are empty. If we leave out the words, our actions are mute. Mission is built on the premise that social involvement and preaching are two sides of the same coin.

Serving the common good isn’t enough by itself. But when Christians illuminate the motivations for neighbor love with the Christian story, actions become rich symbols of the reign of God in the world.

(Photo: Water Fountain, Andrew Brandon)

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Theology

How pastors can inadvertently fuel the sacred/secular divide

 

I recently interviewed David Platt, the pastor of Brook Hills Church in Alabama, for  Christianity Today. We talked about his new book Follow Me: A Call to Die, A Call to Live – a theological follow-up to his bestselling Radical. Though the book had redeeming qualities, I found myself disagreeing with Platt on everything from his use of persecuted Christians in the Middle East as models for American discipleship to using hell as a motivator for evangelism. But perhaps my greatest concern was how he, and many pastors, can inadvertently exacerbate the sacred/secular divide.

At several points in the book Platt references persecuted Christians as models for “real discipleship.” At one point he says, “We have brothers and sisters around the world today who are imprisoned, beaten, persecuted, and killed today not because they smile as they serve people,” but because they tell people the gospel with the words. This is true – sharing the gospel is illegal in many countries. But I had to ask, Isn’t “smiling as you serve,” especially in one’s vocation, an equally valid calling as that of an evangelist?

I wanted to push him here because in several points of the book, Platt equated a radical discipleship to Jesus with separating yourself from your career for things like prayer and Bible study. He references Luke, a successful businessman, who grew in his faith and separated himself from learning about business:

“He [Luke] told me [Platt], ‘My insatiable desire for business books, seminars, and motivational speakers has completely gone away. God has replaced that desire with a hunger for his Word.’”

Again my question: is a desire for run a business well antithetical to being fully committed to God and His Word?

Katelyn Beaty, the Managing Editor of Christianity Today, must have picked up on this subtle sacred/secular divide as well. A portion of an earlier interview she did with Platt was merged with mine for the article, and she asked him: “What about, say, a factory worker who loves Jesus and wants to follow him, but works long hours because he needs to support his family? How would you counsel him?”. It’s a good question. Can’t factory workers please God, even if they’re not converting co-workers?

Although I don’t think there’s any malicious intent here, I think pastors can often exacerbate the sacred/sacred divide by equating real discipleship with more participation in church programs, service events, or Bible studies, often at the cost of doing their daily work with excellence and in the service of God and neighbor.

Skye Jethani, a former pastor and now the senior editor of Leadership Journal, realized how many times he had accidentally contributed to this problem:

“I realized how insensitive and guilt-inducing many of my past sermons had been. In sermon after sermon I had called them to give more time, more money, more energy to the work of the church. Little did I understand or affirm their callings in the world. I had inadvertently created a secular/sacred divide in which the ‘sacred’ calling of the church was pitted against their ‘secular’ callings in the world. I never said this explicitly, of course, but it was implied.”

Nearly all the pastors I know want to dissolve the sacred/secular divide, but in the attempt to find ushers, children’s ministry volunteers, and others to staff church programs, bulletins are often filled with ways to serve ‘in here’ and not ‘out there’ in people’s vocations.

Pastor JR Vassar of Apostles Church in New York City said at a Work as Worship Conference that the real tragedy of this situation is that instead of sending Christians into the world to serve, pastors often take them out of the world – their secular work – to perpetuate church programming. He asks a simple question: What is more significant for the church’s mission: more church programs (and a bigger church), or equipping the Body of Christ to serve God out in the world, in their careers and the tensions of a modern, pluralistic society?

Theologically I think we need to understand two things. (1) God fills us with his Spirit to speak the word of God. The examples are numerous:

  • Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied… (Luke 1:67)
  • The Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit said to them… (Acts 4:8)
  • And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word boldly (Acts 4:31)
  • As he spoke, the Spirit came into me…He said, “You must speak my words to them,” (Ezekiel 2:2,7)

Those who have been given the Spirit will speak his words boldly, and be engaged in activities like discipleship and evangelism. The Scriptures make this clear.

But (2) God also fills us with the Spirit to do work. The Bible’s first mention of the Holy Spirit is in Exodus, when two men are chosen by God to make the tabernacle.

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts” (Exodus 31:2-5).

If both of these statements are true, we must speak the words of God, and we also must show the majesty and goodness of God through our work.  No such sacred/secular divide needs to exist, either inside the church or out in the world

The simple lesson: let’s not remove people from the world in attempts for more build more church programs, but instead let’s equip them to be salt and light in the midst of the world, namely, at work .

Discussion question: Does your church inadvertently fuel the sacred/secular divide? If so, how can this change?

(Photo: Church, Lloyd Photography)

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CultureTheology

Work and the Destiny of the World

 

Our view of the destiny of the world should deeply influence how we understand work.

In the renewed Jerusalem, there is a river flowing from “the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city,” (Rev. 22:2).  And on both sides of river is “the tree of life, bearing crops of fruit.” The tree of life, from which humanity was exiled after the Fall in Genesis, is now at the heart of the city.  The culmination of history includes both the divine (throne, river, and tree of life) and the human (the city). The great hope of the Christian faith is for a renewed human city, a day in which God will reign over human life, including our cultural production that comes from work.

This biblical vision of the future is radical, especially when we compared to other worldviews:

  • The traditional fundamentalist vision is that this world will be burned up in judgment and believers will live with God in a disembodied state in heaven.  The idea here is of a wholly other-worldly eternal state with little to no connection with this world. Yet the Bible states that “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor” into the heavenly city (Rev. 21:24), including their finest work (like the camels of Midian, the ships of Tarshish, and fir trees of Lebanon – see Isaiah 60). In God’s grace, he brings actual human culture, though purified by fire, into a renewed earthly city. There will be real overlap between our work here and its redeemed state in the new Jerusalem.
  • The liberal vision is of establishing God’s kingdom here and now through social and political action. Outlined masterfully in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, in the 1960s and 1970s accomodationists, both liberal Protestants and Catholics, emptied traditional theology of its other worldly elements and equated social justice and politics with God’s kingdom. However, the historic Christian faith teaches the heavenly city comes down out of heaven as a gift from God (Rev. 21:2). It cannot be built, nor can we transform this world into God’s kingdom. Each generation equates some social program with God’s kingdom – and in so doing is eventually disappointed as the reality of sin disappoints all our utopian ventures.
  • The secular vision is perhaps the most depressing. The generally accepted public philosophy of secular materialists sees a distant future in which humans will be long forgotten, the sun will continue its expansion and eventually burn up the earth. The great tension in the secular mind is how to balance the view of the scientific materialists with the myth of progress, still espoused by lovers of technology, despite the horrific events of the 20th century (and the stark suffering of places like Syria). Businesses and even government entities rally behind “mission statements” even though their universe has no mission other than extinction.
  • The Eastern vision of the future is cyclical. Humanity is caught in a never ending cycle of life, death and reincarnation. The world, as well as human culture, has no real ultimate purpose. This view leads to such desperation that Buddhism was born, and it’s great hope was placed in attaining nirvana – freedom from the wheel of samara and the ultimate extinguishing of each person’s light (the definition of nirvana). The statue of the Buddha, with his eyes turned inward, is the paradigm of this worldview. Free yourself from suffering through meditation –  let your light burn out in the darkness.

Each of these visions of the destiny of the world ultimately influences our view of work:

  • Fundamentalist eschatology devalues work. Why build a house or start a business when all that matters is saving souls? This view leads to a stark division between spiritual work and secular work – a view all too common in conservative American churches.
  • The liberal view overvalues work. It equates human triumphs with God’s own kingdom, and both denies the reality of sin that has infected work, and tends to make human achievement an idol. This slippery slope of accommodation also tends to lead to empty churches, as people start question why they should attend a this-worldly congregation that is essentially no different from the rest of culture.
  • The secular view is so dark, people tend to look other places to find meaning in work, such as prestige, innovation, power, or wealth. Work here becomes a slave-driver as people put unrealistic expectations on creation rather than the Creator, and can slip into hopelessness.
  • Eastern religions have a similarly dim view of work. Not only is there no human city in the future, but each person must try to earn good karma on his or her own. Work may provide an income, but it is not connected with any objective goal for human history.  History, just like work, has no culmination. It’s an inescapable cycle.

The biblical view is that the heavenly Jerusalem is a gift, and it cannot be earned or built by men. Yet, in God’s grace, he includes elements of our work and cultural production in God’s new world.

If we truly embrace this view, we’ll be work with both tremendous hope as well as deep humility. Because God is making all things new, we won’t join the fundamentalists who undervalue the nature of God’s good creation, nor will we join the secularists who look into the future and only see a dark universe. Nor will we will join liberals who believe God’s kingdom can be built through only political action. (Nor will we join those who attempt to “transform culture” through their work and cultural engagement. Jesus clearly gives us a picture of the world growing in both good and evil as The Day approaches [Matt. 13:24-30]. For those who espouse of view that Christians should “transform culture”: can you point to a single culture in all of history that has been transformed by the gospel?)

The key way to view our work today – whether it be selling ads or teaching second graders – is as a sign, or a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven.  Christians are called to be representatives of a new world, who are yet living in this age, and to tell the good news through both words and actions. The key creative task is this: how can I take my work and make it a banner that points people to the hope of a renewed heaven and earth?

Perhaps the key image here is not the developer who paves over the earthly city, nor hermit who retreats from the city’s confines, but instead the farmer, who plants the seeds of new life through the work of his hands. And perhaps some of those seeds will grow into strong trees, whose leaves will be for the healing of nations (Rev. 22:2).

Discussion question: What is your view of the destiny of the world? How do you think it influences your work?

(Photo: The Farmer)

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CultureTheology

Forming Social Imaginaries

 

What is the role of pastors and theologians in bringing about cultural and social change?

Theologian Miroslav Volf, in his classic book Exclusion and Embrace, believes there is an important distinction between the role of pastors and the role of Christian laity, especially when trying to apply the gospel to our social world.

“Attending to social arrangements is essential. But it is Christian economists, political scientists, social philosophers, etc. in cooperation with theologians, rather than theologians themselves, that out to address this issue because they are best equipped to do so….

“When not acting as helpmates of economists, political scientists, social philosophers, etc.—and it is part of their responsibility to act this way—theologians should concentrate less on social arrangements and more on fostering the kind of social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies.”

His point is well made: the gospel does influence how we see culture and society, but the ones best suited for making statements about politics or economics (or, by way of extension, technology, education, and business) are Christian laity. Theologians are accurately described as “helpmates” of economists and politicians, and should not cross the line in trying to trade vocations. Instead, theologians should focus on shaping “social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies.”

At bare minimum, this means two things for pastors:

(1) Pastors have a responsibility to disciple those in their congregations who serve in the public sphere. Our public activity, namely, our work, is a matter of Christian discipleship. Work is not neutral – it is loaded with temptations, idols and opportunity for kingdom service. To never speak to the issues that affect the majority of our waking hours is irresponsible.

(2) Pastors should not confuse their distinct calling as a minister of the gospel and so try to become politicians, economists, or even philosophy professors.  This is not a call to be aloof from the matters of the world. Far from it. It is a call be faithful to telling the story of the life, death, resurrection and Second Coming of the Son of God, and to walk alongside laity and shape their imaginations so thoroughly that the gospel will transform parishioners who can therefore shape society through their work.

Takeaway: if you’re a pastor, go and visit somebody at work and so hear about their high priestly ministry (1 Peter 2:9). If you’re not a pastor, go and invite your pastor to lunch and start “envisioning and creating just, truthful and peaceful societies.”

(Photo: Conversation at the Coffee Shop, Steve Hammond)

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