Random Thoughts on Reconciliation

When I think about this past year, my heart has an ache for the people of Ferguson, Missouri and our nation.  Aside from the protests, the violence, and the arrests, I shake my head in sadness over another incident involving the death of an African-American male at the hands of law enforcement.  Let me say a few things up front.  I know about the autopsy report of Michael Brown, which torpedoed a good portion of the eyewitness accounts.  I know that there remains much debate over the events, the sequencing, and ultimately what actually took place.

If there is one thing that I recall about my initial response to the Ferguson incident, it was a deep sense of disbelief over another fatal, encounter between an officer of the law and a person of color.  I found myself saying, “Here we go again, a repeat of the Trayvon Martin incident.”  This was a hotly contested and protested set of circumstances, too.  Apparently, the cycle or the day’s events remain on repeat a la Groundhog Day except our narrative is not a comedy, but a tragedy.

Do I fully understand what my fellow Americans are expressing and saying through the protests and the violence?  Part of me would love to think that I am so adept at empathy and sympathy, but who am I kidding?  I am an uneasy mix of sadness over another young life lost, anger over the rush to condemn or exonerate either party without concern for the dignity of each, and lastly, hopeful in the gospel through the Spirit to bring reconciliation.

Earlier this morning, I read the assigned chapters for my daily, Bible reading plan.  I parked myself on the following passage for a substantial amount of time.  Here is the text:

“My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite, until the Lord from heaven looks down and sees; my eyes cause me grief at the fate of all the daughters of my city” (Lamentations 3:49-51, ESV).

This verse reminds me of the anguished cries of Michael Brown’s parents and friends.  It causes me to think about my heart toward them.  Many African-Americans have resonated with Brown’s family and the whole complex of events as proof of a systemic problem with race in the police departments all over the United States.  Do I see the tears of my fellow Americans?  Am I listening to the cries of their hearts?

I claim to be a follower of Christ, which means that I see things as he sees them.  I feel what he feels.  The Apostle Paul states in Romans 8:29 that all those who follow Christ are being conformed into his image.  Those are fancy words that mean I am becoming like Christ.  If this is a reality, then am I able to listen to the anger and the hurt bursting out of them?  The Lord hears their cries.  For all I know, Michael Brown’s blood might be crying out to the Lord like Abel’s (Genesis 4:10; cf Hebrews 11:4; 12:24, ESV).  In the end, I do not know for sure and no one will this side of eternity.

In the meantime, there is a large segment of the American population experiencing grief, anger, despair, and hopelessness.  There must be a way to respond that upholds their dignity and worth as human beings made in the image of God.  My hope is that the responses acknowledge the past without living there, affirm the hurt without feeding it, and restore the bond of fellowship based upon the cross of Jesus Christ as outlined in Ephesians 2:14-16, ESV.  It sounds like a fantasy at times; however, the gospel does give real hope in times like these.

 

 

“Whites are confused by the outcry of blacks from all over the country when a black boy is killed.  This is because whites do not value their white collective in the same way that blacks value their black collective.  The black culture values the black community. They value the black collective.  It was through community that the blacks prevailed through the Civil Rights Era.  In fact, it is through community that African Americans survive still.  They feel much more dependent on community than we whites do.

“Whites, on the other hand, simply do not see themselves as a collective.  We are the proverbial fish in the water that sincerely asks, ‘What is water?’  We see ourselves as Missourians, Bears fans, cowboys, motorcyclists, Democrats, evangelicals, and countless other possibilities, but we do not feel ourselves to be part of a white collective.  Thus, when our black friends feel the impact of Ferguson even though they are three states away we scratch our heads and wonder how in the world this whole affair became a white/black thing when it just happened to be a white office that killed a black youth while in the line of duty.  How, we wonder, can this be so visceral to them?  As one black pastor friend said, he was vicariously traumatized.  Honestly, I was not similarly traumatized.  I went to bed that night without the feeling that one of us had killed one of them because as a white I don’t even get the feeling of a white us.  In the same week a white teenage girl was shot and killed by the police three blocks away from my home. Naturally there were questions about the police procedures and an investigation is taking place, but no white person felt like one of us had been eliminated by a large impersonal other.  It wasn’t until I consciously chose to respect the understanding and interpretation of black Christians that I sorrowfully recognized my slowness to sympathize with them.”

(Bob Bixby, “The Gospel in Black and White: A Missiological Perspective on Ferguson,” Aug. 21, 2014)

 

Bob Bixby on Two Cultures in Tension over Ferguson

“The belief that we are saved by our virtue, the state of our hearts, or our good works injects a heavy layer of uncertainty and insecurity into our lives.  If God’s treatment of us is conditioned by the quality of our lives, and the quality of our lives is always far from perfect, then we can never be sure he is completely for us, loving us.  To escape this uncertainty requires that you dispel any illusion that through your wisdom and strength you can either create a safe and good life for yourself or put God in the position of owing you such a life.”

(Timothy Keller, “The Victory of Christianity, Chpt 2, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 2013)

The Folly of Works-Based Salvation

Accountability, Church Leaders, and the Laity

One of the dangers within Christendom is the tendency of leaders/ministers to operate as if he or she is above reproach.  At the risk of beating a dead horse, let me say that this describes the whole Mark Driscoll/Mars Hill Church affair to a tee.  No, I am not writing a post about it.  Sometimes in the game of life (football) the most strategic thing to do is to punt.  There have been others better equipped than me who have written top-notch articles about the Driscoll/Mars Hill saga.  For my readers and followers who desire to know more, then feel free to engage the links herehere, and here.  The first two come from the angle of “life lessons to be heeded”; however, the last link provides play-by-play coverage of things ongoing as I type this post.  Let me get back on track.

Christendom is a term that describes the church at large across all denominations and persuasions.  I know that the very first sentence in the preceding paragraph reeks of generalization; however, the Driscoll/Mars Hill saga is not confined to the Protestant community.  The Roman Catholic Church has a horrendous black eye with respect to turning a blind-eye or even aiding and abetting priests guilty of child molestation.  For whatever the reason, some priests, ministers, and the like succumb to the corrupting belief that they are above morals and ethics.  This perspective is so heinous and unchristian, yet it is also beyond tantalizing for some.  Here is a passage from the New Testament, which I will quote from two different translations:

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16, NIV).

“Be conscientious about how you live and what you teach. Persevere in this, because by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you” (1 Timothy 4:16, NET).

Two words come to mind after reading those different renditions: sobering and powerful.  The context of the above quoted scriptures has to do with the apostle Paul exhorting and warning his ministry successor, young Timothy, about what to expect.  An appropriate analogy is that of the father-son relationship.  Paul has discipled or fathered Timothy in accordance with the scriptures, the gospel, and so forth.  Both men served alongside each other through the various missionary journeys recounted in the book of Acts in order to preach the gospel and plant churches throughout Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).  When Paul wrote his first letter to Timothy, the time for exiting this world was close at hand; therefore, he has important truths, warnings, and encouragements to convey to Timothy.

Like any compassionate parent, Paul has things weighing on his heart for Timothy.  He knows that the days ahead will grow tougher and rougher for gospel ministry (1 Tim. 4:1-2, ESV).  This is the soil for the apostle Paul to exhort young Timothy with perseverance regarding the maintenance of sound doctrine and a life built upon the solid ground of sound teaching.  It is very commonplace today to hear folks mouth the saying, “It’s not what you believe, but how you behave that matters.”  There is a kernel of truth within that statement, but it creates a false dichotomy between belief and action.  Let me explain what I mean.  Someone may say to me, “But, Matthew, your actions do speak louder than words.”  Now, I wholeheartedly affirm the truth that my actions toward others matter a great deal.  If I may go even one step further, my personal conviction is that all people will be judged one day for their deeds (Revelation 20:12-13, ESV).  That being said, there is something important about believing in accordance with the truth.

What I want to suggest is that my beliefs and values lead to thoughts, words, and actions that illustrate them.  Another way to express this is that my behavior grows out of the soil of my heart where my beliefs and values dwell.  Jesus taught this truth as he castigated the religious leaders of his day: “You brood of vipers!  How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:34-35, ESV).  Based on Christ’s words, it is clear that the heart of a person controls his mouth and life.  It is my contention that the apostle Paul understood these words of Jesus.  He exhorts Timothy to “Watch [his] life and doctrine,” in order to preserve those under his care and himself (1 Tim. 4:16a, NIV).  This seems to suggest that a truly compassionate and loving shepherd of souls takes responsibility for what germinates within his heart (Hebrews 13:17, ESV).

One word sums up this whole piece: accountability.  At the end of the day, priests, pastors, lay ministers, bible scholars, and congregants remain human beings.  It does not matter if these men and women have been born again.  No one is exempt from the watchful and loving eyes of another brother or sister in Christ.  If anyone wants to know why church leaders succumb to moral failure, it is due in some measure to a lack of accountability.  Those leaders who isolate and insulate themselves are not fit to remain in leadership positions within the church.  Another red flag is the type of pride that drives church leaders to orchestrate policies and practices that exempt themselves from being transparent to other leaders and the laity.  For example, what is the point of this verse, “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches,” if there is no genuine rapport between the leaders and those lead by them (Galatians 6:6, ESV)?  This verse presupposes the fact that the laity have been benefiting from their leaders; therefore, the apostle Paul exhorts the Galatian Christians to share those good things.

If the Galatians needed to hear this exhortation about sharing the good things from their leaders, then I believe it works the other way with respect to poor teaching and living.  I think it goes without saying that those who sit in the pews must own their faith by examining what is taught from the pulpit.  For example, the book of Acts contains a wonderful vignette of the Bereans, who examined the teachings of Paul and Silas (Acts 17:10-12, ESV).  This account reveals a few things.  First, it illustrates the humility of Paul and Silas to undergo such scrutiny, which serves as a model for anyone and everyone who aspires to lead God’s people.  Second, the writer of the book of Acts, Dr. Luke, includes this in his narrative, thereby keeping it as a record for all Christians present and future.  Lastly, if the Bereans were too caught up on having the right theology or doctrine, then how come Luke’s words were so favorable toward them?  Here is another question that flows out from the previous one: what is the lesson that God wants his people to learn from the Bereans?  Oh, Lord, grant us the discipline to search the scriptures, to pursue community with other believers, and to remain humble.

Owning our Faith

Allow me to begin this entry with a question.  What does it look like for Christians to own their faith?  There has been plenty of ink devoted to answering that question.  I do not claim any expertise in the disciplines of missiology or eccelsiology, which deal head on with the doctrinal and practical implications of that query.  At the turn of the 21st Century, an entire church movement began with the express purpose of exploring new ways to tackle such an old concern.  I am alluding to the Emergent/Emerging church movement and its well known faces such as Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, et al.  Sadly, these men and their movement have arrived at answers and practices that scarcely can be called Christian.

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Mencius, once said that “Only when there are things a man will not do is he capable of doing great things.”  I firmly believe that those leaders within the Emergent/Emerging church movement began asking sincere questions.  At some point along the way, McLaren, Bell, Jones, and the rest of their ilk arrived at answers that lead them off of the reservation of biblical Christianity.  They failed to heed the wisdom of Mencius’ words.  It is crucial to ask questions about what it looks like for Christians to own their faith.  I think this has the potential to maintain accountability and humility within the church.  It falls in line with Socrates’ words that the unexamined life is not worth living.

When the answers and its subsequent practices lead away from biblical orthodoxy, it illustrates an anything goes approach.  The plumb line of scripture goes by the wayside as a new breed emerges within the church by determining truth for itself.  This is outright rebellion to the plain teaching of scripture.  King Solomon wrote the following words thousands of years ago: “A man’s steps are from the Lord; how then can man understand his way” (Proverbs 20:24, ESV)?  Like any rhetorical question the answer is obvious…man cannot understand his way.  There is something elusive to understanding himself.  I love those wise words of both Mencius and Socrates; however, they must be tempered by holy scripture, which teaches that “…no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11b; see Psalms 14 & 53, ESV).

Fallen humanity possesses an innate inability to choose life instead of death, good rather than evil.  When I quoted the passage from Romans three in the previous paragraph, this is precisely the apostle Paul’s point in his letter to the Christians in Rome.  These early followers of Christ seek after him because God worked a radical change within them by the Holy Spirit.  In theological language, this is called the doctrine of regeneration, which is one of the many glorious facts about the believer’s salvation.  Regeneration is the divine process by which God removes the stony heart for a fleshly one while indwelling us by the Spirit (Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:25-27, ESV).  In the book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul describes regeneration as God giving spiritual life to those who were spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:5, ESV).

What does all of this have to do with Christians owning their faith?  One answer is to recognize the divine work of salvation accomplished in me.  When I study Romans or Ephesians, it is vital to rest in the truth of what God did, is doing, and will do in my life.  My past, present, and future find meaning and fulfillment by virtue of salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV).  Another practical application toward owning one’s faith is to engage in thoughts, words, and actions that demonstrate the work of regeneration (Ephesians 4:21-25, ESV).  If I claim to be born again by the Spirit of God, then does my life show it?  According to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, those who have been born again live it, which is similar to the exhortations by another New Testament writer in the book of James (James 1:22-25, ESV).

One more thing needs to be said in clear terms.  I am not suggesting that posing questions, or undergoing self-examination about my faith in Christ is wrong.  What I would say is to be wise about how one engages the process.  This is not something to do apart from the community of believers.  I must choose wisely those men and women to walk alongside me.  When I am by myself, it is important to spend time in prayer with the Lord in addition to reading his word.  It is wrong for me to leech off of others; however, it is not wrong to lean on others.  The latter is a command straight from the bible (Galatians 6:2, ESV).  It is my hope that we Christians would walk by God’s light in dark places for the good of others and our testimony (Philippians 2:14-16; see Isaiah 50:10-11, ESV).