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World View


Calling All Watchmen


"Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, 'You shall surely die,' and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.” Ezekiel 3:17-19

Ezekiel’s task
In 593 BC, a priest living in exile in Babylon was given a task to perform: the task of a watchman. That priest, Ezekiel, was told to warn the exiles in Babylon (just as Jeremiah was similarly warning the people living in Jerusalem) regarding the coming judgment on Judah. Between the time he was commissioned and the day a fugitive from Jerusalem arrived to announce the city’s fall in 586 BC, Ezekiel was mute: he could not speak anything other than the words of warning and judgment God gave to him (Ezekiel 33:21-22).

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Is Evil Winning?


On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among the children of man. Psalm 12:8

Bad news
I almost hate to watch the news these days. Terrorists on the march in Syria; terrorists taking control (again) in Iraq; Christians imprisoned, persecuted, or killed from one side of the globe to the other; innocent school girls kidnapped and raped by Muslim extremists; endless scandals involving the president and various government agencies; illegal immigrants overrunning our southern borders; U.S. cities going bankrupt; an ever-shrinking economy and labor force; the cloying escapades of the ubiquitous Kardashian clan (or other vapid celebrities); the constant din of sexual anarchists who pervert all that is decent and right; the assault on freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution; and apostate pastors and churches accommodating themselves to a debauched culture.

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Dreaming God's Dreams


The usual question
“It just goes to show that if you follow your dreams, you’ll achieve them,” says the victorious athlete as the microphone is thrust at him or her. “If I can do it, so can you.”

You’ll hear the same answer at talent shows, game shows, and pretty much every contest where a winner emerges from obscurity to fame. “What did it take to get you on the winner’s podium?” Almost always, it’s the pursuit of a dream that got them there. And it’s not just in competitions. Children in school are encouraged to dream big. Graduates are urged not to let their dreams die. Just about anyone who gives advice says, “Follow your dream(s).”

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How’s Your Joy?

Joy

“So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” John 16:22

Inspiring lyrics
In 1907, pastor Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933) penned words to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” – the much beloved melody of the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. In doing so, Van Dyke provided us with what some have called the greatest expression of joy found in English hymnody. If you have sung it in church, or heard its memorable rendition in Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Act II, you will recall this song’s stirring opening:

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flow’rs before Thee,
Hail Thee as the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day.

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The Good Fruit of a Godly Old Age

The_Love_Song_TS_Eliot

The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him. Psalm 92:12-15

Old, hopeless, and useless
In T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the morose protagonist laments his lonely life; frets over his inability to make decisions that would give his life meaning and direction; and mourns a sea of lost opportunities due to his overwhelming fear of failure. The mood and message of the poem is captured when Prufrock moans, “I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (ll. 120-121). Just as his physical stature has been diminished by aging (hence the need to roll up his too-long trousers), his soul has shriveled to the point that he comes to the end of his life drowning in regrets, devoid of either happy memories or hope, and feeling useless. He’s simply marking time until he dies.

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Crossing Borders: Evangelism Across Cultures (5)

Crossing_Boarders

Saddled with stereotypes
Your friends probably have a stereotype or two about what Christians are like. Fill in the blanks. You know a lot of the possible options. Narrow, bigoted, fanatic, hypocrite, angry. Against women, against gays, against science, against pretty much everything.  And there are a lot more. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve earned their scorn by actually being any of them; some combination of these descriptors is often assumed.

OK. Not fair. Not fun. But more and more, it is the burden of being Christian in our culture. Yes, the perceptions are sometimes fed by the sin and folly of the divine enterprise we call the Body of Christ. Other times, the media stokes the fires of incendiary stereotypes that tell us more about the stereotyper than the stereotyped. Either way, we’re placed somewhere on a continuum between irrelevant and dangerous.

What do we do when the Church is viewed as a mob of heartless, theocratic bullies? Among other things, we figure out what it means to live the Gospel in ways that challenge the reigning assumptions about Christian faith and practice. The roadblocks to faith in our culture aren’t just cognitive or intellectual and, therefore, we cannot think about witness simply in terms of a battle over ideas (although it certainly is that as well).

And the challenge isn’t simply with our secular counterparts.  Neighbors and co-workers who  come from other cultures and are raised in different faith traditions are as likely to be confused about what it means for you to be a Christian as anyone else. Take Islam, for example. Did you know that many Muslims would be surprised to learn you pray? Many followers of Islam equate the decadent, materialistic culture of the West with Christianity. This means they too often embrace a fairly negative stereotype of what it means to be a Christian. In addition, you might want to acknowledge that draped invisibly around your neck as you talk to Muslim friends are such matters as U.S. foreign policy with regard to Israel, drone strikes in Pakistan, Western colonialism in the Middle East, and the Crusades. And all that is apart from any actual religious differences.

Evangelism: more than mere words
The point is that we don’t generally start at square one with people. We often start at square negative ten or fifteen. There are obstacles, stereotypes, and misunderstandings aplenty. How do we begin to break through them? Again, no single sure-fire way exists but certainly one non-negotiable way is to draw those God has brought to us into our lives so that they can see the reality of Christ’s transforming power at work in us.  In other words, it’s not enough to simply declare the reality of the kingdom; we must demonstrate the reality of the kingdom.  It’s the pattern we see in Jesus’ own ministry where he announces the good news of the kingdom in both word and deed.  He both tells and shows. We’re inclined simply to tell but Jesus reminds us that we must also show.

However, we’re not quite finished because, while Gospel truth must be incarnate in individual lives, it must also be embodied in community because it is only in community that the Gospel can be displayed in all its fullness. Let’s test that. Consider the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. We think of the fruit as internal qualities. But look again. How do you love or extend kindness or act in patient faithfulness all by yourself?  Paul is describing the characteristics of kingdom community. In a world marked so often by anger, revenge, alienation, and violence, what the world needs to see is another possibility for human community marked by love, self-giving, forgiveness and reconciliation. The Church, the community of the kingdom, is an essential part of the witness of the Gospel.

Evangelism through participating in Christian community
A dear friend in London helps lead a wonderful South Asian church in the Southall section of west London, New Life Masih Ghar.[i] One of the things I find so compelling about this church is the way the life of the community is central to its idea of witness. For them, it’s not simply about proclaiming a message but embodying the message in the life of a grace-filled community of forgiveness and reconciliation.[ii] I led their church retreat last November and to my delight there were Muslims and Hindus there.  In fact, these are folks who are ordinarily part of pretty much anything the church does.  My friend calls them “‘belongers.”  They aren’t sure yet about where they are with Jesus but what they know is they experience something at New Life Masih Ghar that they don’t experience anywhere else. And so they want to belong and as they belong they inch their way closer and closer to Jesus, listening to the good news of the Gospel as they experience that Gospel in relationship.

It interesting isn’t it? We live in a time when truth claims are viewed with deep suspicion as acts of coercion and maybe even violence. In spite of that, so often our inclination is toward coercion as a means of Christian witness. Yes, let’s name the elephant in the room. Politics is ultimately about coercion because we want, in one form or another, the coercive power of government to support or enforce our Christian convictions in the name of “reclaiming America for Christ.”

Evangelism from a position of weakness
One book that looms large in my thinking is Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity.[iii] Stark seeks to answer one simple question, “How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge classical Paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization?”[iv] His answer is profoundly simple: Christian teaching acted out in the daily life of the community was able to powerfully transform human experience, individually and, eventually, culturally. Word and deed, proclamation and demonstration were the church’s “strategy”[v] for over two centuries and the world was never the same.  You need to read this compelling book to see how this worked out in detail. But I’ve often thought that until we wrestle with the things Stark discusses, we will continue to be adrift with respect to witness in our culture.

One of the things I find challenging about Stark’s book is that the early Christians didn’t see their lack of access to power and the institutions and instruments of power as somehow limiting or thwarting their witness. It was a witness not dependent upon earthly power but the power of God in the Gospel. Look at the end of Acts 4 and note the radical union of economic shalom and the proclamation of resurrection that would simply have amazed a watching culture. What imperial power could have commanded or forbidden such witness? Is it the case that we’ve so lost real confidence in the power of the Gospel that we resort to coercion before witness?

Faithfulness in deed
As we think about evangelism and the church’s witness, our call in the end is to live the Gospel together as we proclaim it.  Men and women, secular or religious, from down the street or across the planet, whether polytheist Hindu or Muslim monotheist, need to see truth lived faithfully in a new kind of community.   There is no better place to begin our thinking than by reading the New Testament with Rodney Stark as an imaginative conversation partner.  For all that ails us when we are confused and distracted about witness, my prescription is to rub on liberal applications of Rodney Stark and call me in the morning.



[i] Masih Ghar means House of Messiah
[ii] It is helpful to remember that the national, cultural, and religious differences among South Asians are sometimes enormous and are a source of conflict back home. That former Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs from Pakistan and India come together to be one family in Jesus is at the core of their witness to the reconciling power of the Gospel.
[iii] San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1996.
[iv] Ibid, p.3.
[v] Certainly the early Christians didn’t work this all out in advance by having a conference to come up with a mission strategy for the Empire.  They simply taught and lived as the Bible commanded and the consequences were astonishing.  We have the benefit now of studying and benefitting from their example for thinking about our own life and witness.


Next steps

If you know someone who doesn’t mind speaking freely about their non-Christian convictions, ask them why they have a certain perspective on Christianity. Then ask, what would it take for you to change your mind? Is there anything you can do personally to undo the negative, media-fueled impressions many have of the Christian faith? Are you part of a community of the kind in west London that Bob describes above? If so, would an invitation be in order to your non-Christian friend?

rise_of_christianity

Further reading:

Bob mentions Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity above. Want a copy? You can order it from the Colson Center Bookstore. It will give you some fresh perspectives on evangelism.



The Word Became Flesh: Why our Words Matter to God (2)
 
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