Loving the world, forsaking the world

worldBurt Bacharach crooned: “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

Jesus would have agreed. At the last supper before his arrest and crucifixion, he taught his disciples:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35, NIV).

The Lord was only asking them to do what his Father had already done. It was because God “so loved the world” that he sent Jesus (John 3:16). And Jesus in turn showed his love for the world, laying down his life for the world (John 1:29). It follows that what the Father and Son have done, we are called to do, loving the world in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Yet there’s an interesting tension in the New Testament books attributed to John. While there is a positive love of the world that fuels our service to God and others, there’s a negative kind of “loving the world,” one that chokes off our zeal for God and withers our concern for others. John warns:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them (1 John 2:15, NIV).

So which is it: Should we love the world or not? The answer is: BOTH.

Make no mistake: Our call is to love the world – all that God has made – wholeheartedly and unreservedly, in order that the world may be reconciled to God. We long for the day when heaven and earth will be one (Revelation 21:1-5). God has a loving concern for creation, the cosmos. What God has created, God longs to salvage and to renew. To this task God calls us, to partner with heaven to redeem the earth, including humans who have rebelled against God. If we do not love what God loves, how can we cooperate for its restoration?

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The Jesus question

768px-Circle-question-blue.svgThere are many intriguing questions in Christian theology, but one matters most. It’s the question Jesus asked his disciples:

Who do you say I am? (Matthew 16:15, NIV).

Simon Peter replied that Jesus is the “Messiah,” the “Son of the living God” (v. 15, NLT). This simple fisherman saw in Jesus of Nazareth the One anointed by God, the Christ. This confession of faith – Jesus as the Son of God – is the rock upon which Christ builds his church (v. 18).

It’s the Jesus question.

In math class, our teacher taught us to simplify fractions. Instead of 4/8 – she patiently explained – find the largest whole number that divides into both the numerator and the denominator. The anwer is 4, and when divided by that number, 4/8 becomes 1/2. It’s easier to work with simplified fractions.

What is true for fractions is true for theology. The Jesus question keeps us from getting lost in a maze of valid but ultimately less important questions; it simplifies things.

The Jesus question is helpful both corporately and individually:

Corporately — It’s a church, but is it a Christian church? Look past more complicated issues and determine what they think about Jesus. If a given church teaches that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, if they believe that he is the Savior of the world and is himself God, that he died for our sins and rose again to reconcile us to God, then they clear the minimum bar. But if Jesus is in some way demoted or held to be a great teacher or prophet but not himself God, that church may be many things, but it is not Christian.

Individually — The Jesus question confronts each of us. Jesus wasn’t content to just know what the crowds were saying about him. He turned to his disciples and to us:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?” (v. 15, NIV)

We must decide who exactly this Jesus is, not only for others, but for us. Peter concluded: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then he moved beyond words to action. He continued to follow Christ. For many of us, to respond positively won’t be a continuation of a journey but the beginning of a new one. To us and to all, Jesus says: “Follow me.”

Christian theology asks many questions. Theologians offer a wide variety of answers, but on the question of Jesus, voices unite. Only he is God’s eternal Son, God’s anointed, our hope for this life and the life to come. How have you answered the Jesus question?


 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Unusual Things About the Incarnation

Gospel_of_Luke_Chapter_2-1_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)Note: I preached this short message in the chapel of Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi, Kenya) on December 13, 2017. Thanks to Chalé Atikonda, a BTh student at ANU, who heard the sermon and later suggested a further point, i.e. “an unusual task,” which I’ve added to this revised version.


Scripture reading: Luke 1:26-38

All Scripture citations are from the Common English Bible.

INTRODUCTION

“How should a King come?”

Jimmy and Carol Owens penned these words to the popular Christmas song:

How should a King come?

Even a child knows the answer of course;

In a coach of gold with a pure white horse.

In the beautiful city in the prime of the day,

And the trumpets should cry

And the crowds make way.

And the flags fly high in the morning sun,

And the people all cheer for the sovereign one.

And everyone knows that’s the way that it’s done,

That’s the way that a king should come.

And yet the Gospel accounts of Christ’s coming to earth make it clear: God’s ways are not our ways. Today, let’s look at 7 unusual things about the Incarnation, based on Luke 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will give birth to a son.

 

FIRST, GOD SENT AN UNUSUAL MESSENGER.

The appearance of angels was hardly an everyday occurrence. This is implied when Gabriel says to Mary: “Fear not.” People aren’t afraid of everyday events, but when they’re rare, they might give you a scare. Here was God’s messenger coming to deliver stupendous news. The name “Gabriel” means “God is my strength.” Here was an unusual messenger, a mighty being sent by God, and Mary took notice.

SECOND, THE ANNOUNCEMENT CAME IN AN UNUSUAL PLACE.

If Nazareth were a Kenyan town, it might make the top 100 list, but somewhere at the bottom, nestled between Nambale and Tabaka. Then again, Nazareth might not make any list, for at the time, people said: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth” (John 1:46). Wouldn’t it make more sense for a King to come to Jerusalem, the Nairobi of its day, the main commercial and economic hub? But God’s ways are not our ways.

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Swimming upstream

512px-Salmon_fish_swimming_upstreamQ – What do salmon, coho, and rainbow trout have in common?

A – They all swim upstream for reproductive purposes.

Biologists believe that odors of the home waters where they were spawned remain wired in their brain. Sciencing.com explains: “At maturity, they are instinctively drawn back to the place of their birth.”

These three species of fish hold a lesson for Christianity:

Reproduction requires swimming against the current.

Going with the flow is easier, but spawning the next generation of believers mandates a counter-cultural approach. We are upstream Christians in a downstream world.

The words of Paul to Titus have a timeless quality though they were written 1,900 years ago:

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds (Titus 2:11-14, NLT).

They, too, were to be upstream Christians in a downstream world. In a society that was “evil,” Paul called Titus and the flock he shepherded to lead lives characterized by “wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God.” Their attention was to remain hopefully focused on the future, the day of Christ’s return. Meanwhile, there was no place for idleness. In the same way the twelve-year-old Jesus insisted that he must be busy with his Father’s work (Luke 2:49), so Paul reminds Titus to commit himself to God’s good work in the world (v. 14).

What is striking about Paul’s advice to his young protégé is that living in an evil world never justified jumping out of the stream. Upstream fish remain in the stream but are strong enough to swim against it. To succeed in this counter-cultural feat, believers must remember three things:

1) Remember that our help comes from the LORD. Isaiah 26:3 reminds us:  “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you” (Isaiah 6:3, NIV). The would-be crushing pressure from our surroundings must be matched by an internal spiritual force that pushes back. Andrés Filipe Arias knows this well. Caught up as a pawn in a geo-political chess game, this former Columbian Minister of Agriculture now sits in a Miami detention center. His petition for assylum in the U.S. hopelessly delayed, he faces 17 years of wrongful imprisonment if extradited to his home country. Such a force would have crushed many, but the husband of one and father of two has deep faith in God. When asked how he is coping, he replied: “I feel strong and at peace. Of course, every second I long for my home, my wife, and my kids. But I’ve learned to accept God’s will no matter how mysterious are His ways.” As to his sanity, he testifies that God sees to it.

2) Remember to swim together.  The salmon, coho, and rainbow trout swim upstream together. In the same way, resisting the downstream pull of our culture is best done when we stick together. This is the strongest argument for the church; there is strength in numbers. It’s no accident that it wasn’t a single Hebrew but three Hebrews brothers who together refused to bow before the idol of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:16-18). Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NIV) teaches that a “cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Jesus calls us to be like the light set on a lampstand that draws people in from the darkness to the warmth of the light (Luke 11:33). We shine best when we shine collectively.

3) Remember to keep on loving. Being counter-cultural is no excuse for aloof disengagement. Jesus told of a time when evil would increase. What would be the result? “The love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12b, NIV). Our love for God and for others is the ultimate measure of holiness (Mark 12:28-31). If our churches are shrinking, could it be that would-be seekers coming in from the cold – in the words of evangelist Charles “Chic” Shaver – never found enough love to keep them warm? What kind of “love” inscribes “all welcome” on the church sign but freezes people out once they step inside?

Like Paul and Titus, we live in a world that too often is evil, yet this is no excuse for downstream living. With the strength that comes from the Lord and banding together, followers of Christ model a different path, a better way. May our love never grow cold! Instead, let us open our arms wide to all, inviting people to join us and our Leader in this epic swim upstream.


 

Image credit: By Robert W. Hines, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Oord’s Uncontrolling Love of God: A Critique

OordTom Oord’s The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of God’s Providence (IVP, 2016) has sold very well, including the Kindle version that has slept unread on my iPad for the past year. But now I’m teaching a course in contemporary theology, so the timing was good to read Oord alongside my students.

Let’s begin with what’s right with the book. First, Tom Oord is unafraid to tackle tough issues, and none is tougher than theodicy, what C.S. Lewis called “the problem of pain.” In the first chapter, he rehearses what anyone who has been a follower of Jesus for any length of time knows: Sometimes, God lets us down. What’s more, horrific things happen in our world, events that seem to defy our common understanding of God as both all-powerful and all loving. Oord’s timely and practical introduction draws the reader in.

A second positive aspect of The Uncontrolling Love of God is its down-to-earth style. You don’t have to be a trained philosopher to make sense of what he’s saying. Further, Oord has done a decent job of presenting biblical evidence to support his thesis, though it’s apparent he is more at home wearing his philosopher’s hat than his Scripture cap.

Which brings us to the question: What is his central idea? Oord explains:

God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control (Location 2001, Kindle edition)

The phrase “God cannot” is the hardest hurdle to clear, and Oord understands this. The reason he insists on using the phrase anyways is that the nature of love – according to Oord – is always non-coercive, or “uncontrolling.” Here Oord tries to carefully circumscribe the meaning of “coerce,” clarifying that it does not carry a psychological, violent, or bodily sense, only a “metaphysical” sense, meaning that – in such a scenario – God would “act as a sufficient cause, thereby wholly controlling the other or the situation” (Kindle location 2547).

I’m still reflecting on this central premise. I agree with Oord’s observation that if God can control in some circumstances in order to mitigate evil, then it becomes difficult to understand why God seems to stay quiet on the sidelines at other times (Kindle location 3000). Yet the biblical witness that God sometimes controls is too obvious to easily dismiss. For example, attempting to follow Oord’s model, I find it hard to believe that uncontrolling love alone can bring about the consummation of the Kingdom of God described at the close of the New Testament. In fact, Revelation makes clear that persuasive love alone will not be enough to reign-in the devil, the incorrigible enemy of God and all that is good. In overwhelming force – yes, coercion – Jesus will return and arrest the devil and his minions, casting them into a lake of fire (Rev. 20:7-10). This is a case where God in Christ will “wholly control the other or the situation,” to use Oord’s words. In fact, the spiritual warfare worldview as promulgated by theologian Gregory Boyd presupposes at least some form of coercion. This worldview is the default for nearly a billion of the world’s inhabitants that call Africa home, yet it seems not to register on Oord’s radar. Arguably, it is as much a challenge to his model as are miracles (addressed in chapter 8).

But let’s set aside the adjective “uncontrolling” and talk about the noun, namely, “love.” Throughout the book, Oord is critical of the Calvinistic penchant for making power (or sovereignty) God’s most important attribute. On the other hand, Wesleyan theologians often cite love as the essence of the divine being, and Oord is no different. But it may be asked:

Do we need to identify a single divine attribute that is most important? What purpose does such prioritization serve?

How would Oord’s project look different if — instead of beginning with love then building the superstructure of his argument upon that — he esteemed all God’s attributes equally, whether that be sovereignty, faithfulness, love, or a dozen other characteristics? Instead of looking at Philippians 2 and its kenotic interpretation as central, what if we rather saw that passage as only one piece of a much more complicated puzzle, one that also encompasses attributes seemingly opposed to love, such as wrath? In short, to identify love as the most important divine attribute is a judgment call. Some theologians will agree; others will decide on another attribute and reference his or her own proof texts. The only alternative is a far more ambitious project, to look at providence and the problem of evil in light of the various attributes of God’s character even if that means holding them in creative tension.

Tom Oord wrestles commendably with the problem of evil and suffering, yet he leaves out key Christological considerations, most importantly, the resurrection and the return of Christ. Without a future tense, theodicy is unsolvable. I wish Oord would be a little less philosophical theologian and a little more creedal theologian, for nested in the Apostles’ Creed are phrases that can give hope to every hopeless situation he eloquently describes in the first chapter of his book:

“On the third day he rose again.”

“I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

The same comforts pastors provide at a Christian funeral should have something to say in a discussion of theodicy. Indeed, the resurrection is the peg on which the whole of the Christian faith is suspended. Arguably, it should also be the peg on which theodicy hangs. “Jesus rose. We too shall live.” The rest is details.

Where I think The Uncontrolling Love of God can help is with the non-believer for whom the resurrection might one day hold comfort (should they come to Christ) but who for now finds traditional theistic explanations of evil and suffering a deal-breaker. Oord’s book allows the reader to question whether what well-meaning Christians have told them about God and God’s ways is in fact completely accurate. I can see the book as facilitating a rethink for those who have concluded – through their experience – that God is either sadistic or non-existent.

The book’s weaknesses notwithstanding, I recommend The Uncontrolling Love of God. Even in the areas where the author and I disagree, it forced me to think about why I was disagreeing. That can only be healthy for any thinker who desires to plumb the depths of God and how God interacts with the creation.

 

Two sayings broken beyond repair

penWhen I was a boy and something broke, I’d take it to my dad. In my mind, he could fix anything. We’d go down in the basement to his work bench where we’d poke around in some of the boxes and containers. One tube of epoxy glue, one vice and 24 hours of patience later, whatever had been broken was as good as new.

Sometimes it’s not just objects that are broken. Sayings can be broken, too. Sometimes they can be fixed; other times, they’re beyond repair.

One of Israel’s favorite proverbs was broken and could not be fixed:

What do you mean by this proverb of yours about the land of Israel: ‘When parents eat unripe grapes, the children’s teeth suffer’? As surely as I live, says the LORD God, no longer will you use this proverb in Israel! (Ezekiel 18:2-3, CEB).

The proverb had become an excuse to shift blame. The rest of chapter 18 drives home the point that we must not blame our sins on those who came before us. Each of us is morally responsible before God as individuals.

Could what was true in Ezekiel’s day be true in ours? Is God asking us to jettison some sayings that have become counterproductive? Here are two that – like a dusty can of corn whose expiration date has passed – should be tossed in the trash, no longer fit for human consumption.

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace.”

God’s grace is an amazing thing! Without it, we would be lost (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11). But in practice, we don’t read all the way to the end of the sentence. We get bogged down in the first four words, putting a full-stop where it doesn’t belong: “I’m just a sinner.”

The result is a sinning religion, a Christianity full of forgiveness but devoid of Christlikeness. We “get saved,” meaning that we’ve tucked our ticket for heaven in our wallet or purse for safekeeping. Now – so we think – we can do what we please. In theological terms, we may have been justified but we’ve stopped short of sanctification. The summit of the mountain lies ahead, but we’re satisified to camp out in the foothills.

Yet God invites us to climb higher. The lowlands of sin are behind us and there’s no turning back. Paul reminds the Corinthians that – while sin was a part of their past – it is no longer what they are about (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). And because of this, Peter insists: “You will be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, CEB). 

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace” can be an entry ramp to the highway of spiritual compromise. It’s the travel companion of similar sayings like “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” It rationalizes our sinful ways by conditioning us to live with a divided heart, forgetting that those who are double-minded are “unstable in all their ways” (James 1:8, CEB). Yet Christ calls us to a deeper life, one characterized by joyfully living into the ways of God. John Wesley called it “holiness of heart and life,” understanding that the very essence of holiness is love for God and others (Mark 12:28-34).

“Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

If love is the very essence of holiness, then we must address a second saying that claims to be loving. But is it?

Hate the sin, love the sinner.

The saying at a certain level sounds like Paul: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9, NIV). But can we ignore the repulsive effect that the “hate the sin, love the sinner” proverb has upon listeners? It is often in social media conversations around sexuality that well-intentioned Christians trot out the proverb, thinking all the while that they’re being graceful in doing so. But any communication has two parties, a transmitter and a receiver. Effective communication only happens when the message transmitted is accurately decoded by the listener in the way that the sender intended.  And it is here that the breakdown occurs. The first phrase – “Hate the sin” – begins with the imperative, “Hate.” Like a flash-bang grenade tossed into the conversation, it deafens the listener to any words that follow. They never hear “love the sinner” because the only message they’ve received is that they are “the sinner” who is hated. If our objective is an evangelistic conversation, has the door just slammed shut? 

Some have suggested reversing the words so that the saying becomes: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” At least we then lead with love, not judgment. This seems closer to Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). First, he pronounced words of love to her: “Neither do I condemn you” (11a, CEB). Then, he instructed her to abandon her wrongdoing: “Go, and from now on, don’t sin any more” (11b). 

But I still wonder if the saying is beyond repair. Even if we lead with love by frontloading the words “love the sinner,” the proverb still has a whiff of smug judgmentalism about it. Phylicia Masonheimer asks:

Do we actually hate sin, or do we simply love judgment?

In “hate the sin, love the sinner,” the couplet “the sinner” comes across as clinical, like a medical journal article discussing “the patient.” It’s cold, aloof, and off-putting, like when a man talks publicly about “the wife.” What listener wants to have the verbal label “the sinner” taped on their chest? While it is theologically correct as a description of those who have not yet come to Christ (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:10), we need God’s wisdom to know when is the right time as a relationship develops to speak of sin and its meaning. In our social media interactions, we forget that often we have not yet earned the right to speak at that deeper level, that many of our readers are still ripening to God through the action of prevenient grace. Our words will either stir up that grace or douse it. Experience tells us that whatever our intentions, the “hate the sin, love the sinner” proverb pushes people away.  Isn’t it time for it to go?

Summing it all up

My dad was gifted at fixing broken objects. Sometimes when sayings are broken, they, too, can be mended. But there are other times when it’s best to just throw them out. The expressions “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” and “Hate the sin, love the sinner” are two such popular sayings, well-intended but counteproductive. May the Holy Spirit help us to be sensitive to these and other sayings that produce negative effects.

 

 

Going up the down escalator

Escalator_in_Japan_(6394120847)

Admit it. You’ve done it, too.

Maybe you were in some department store at a time when few were around. You could have taken the escalator going in the right direction, but what fun is that? So you looked down to make sure your shoe laces were tied, then stepped onto the rolling metal steps. You shifted into high gear, then started straining against the tide, pumping your legs at double-speed. Chances are you got some dirty looks along the way, but a minute later you raised your arms at the top in Rocky-like triumph:

You made it up the down escalator.

What you did was totally optional. After all, to make it to a higher level, you could have done what you usually do. You could have just taken the “up” escalator. But something strange has been happening lately. More escalators seem to be going down.

Marijuana? “Legalize its recreational use nationally,” some say, even though it is causing big problems for one state that already has.

Pornography? “No big deal,” though South Dakota and Virginia think otherwise.

Coarse language? “They’re only words. Take a chill pill!”

Cheating on exams? “Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.”

Undocumented workers and their children? “Send them back to where they came from!” makes a popular talking point, despite the fact that many are high achievers and are contributing to the nation’s well-being.

Lesbian daughter? “Kick her to the curb until she straightens out. What would people at church think, after all?” (So now we have many homeless LGBTQ youth.)

These days, we seem to be flocking to the down escalators, dulling our senses, hardening our hearts and consciences, even as we sink to lower-and-lower levels. To buck the trend – to get to the next floor up – we’ll have to brush off an old skill:

We’ll need to gather our strength, steel our resolve, and walk up the down escalator.

The Bible can help. Paul reminds us in Romans 12:2 (NLT):

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

There are those who resist the tide. Former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson brought his son back home, pulling the talented player from the Nebraska football program. His reason? Keyshawn Jr. got distracted by university party life and was busted for marijuana. He forget why he was there in the first place, to excel at football. Fans applauded the unusual decision by a strict and caring dad.

Thankfully, some “up” escalators still function. Find them and use them; invite others to join you. Volunteer for Little League. Take your son or daughter along to visit an old friend at the nursing home. Make it a family activity to help pass out food at your church’s food pantry. There are many ways to keep your community’s “up” escalators well-oiled and in-service. In so doing, we’ll be modeling – as Rick Warren insists – that “it’s not about you.”

Sometimes your community’s “up” escalators are broken; all escalators are rolling downward. It’s decision time. When you exert yourself and walk up the down escalator, rest assured: You’ll get dirty looks. Pressure will mount for you to go with the flow. Don’t give in! Get enough people walking against the grain and someone’s bound to ask what happened to all the up escalators.

Meanwhile, don’t grow tired. Join with others who are going up and encourage each other. When you land at the top, thank the Lord, then have your moment of Rocky-like triumph, together.

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Photo credit

By Yuko Honda from Tokyo, Japan (何の気なしに乗ると予想外の動きをするのでうわっ!てなるエスカレーター。) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons