Tuesday, August 23, 2005

What in the World is Wrong with the West? -- Part 2

Part 1 of this “mini-series” is here.

It’s almost laughable, really. In a world where so many ethnicities have come together to prove like never before that no two people or cultures are the same, you’d think that we’d be looking for commonalities.

Isn’t it easier to talk to people about things you have in common? Mutual friends, similar experiences, places you’ve both visited?

But what do I have in common with my Muslim neighbour who moved here from Turkey a year ago and is just learning english? Very little. But some things stretch beyond culture, place of birth and age. And there is one thing more certain than taxes.

And yet it’s the greatest taboo of our society. We just cannot find a way to come to terms with our own mortality. If one person starts to talk about death, people give it a little awkward chuckle and then change the subject or say something like, “c’mon, you’re not going to die.” Even in my own house, when my mom starts to talk about her life insurance policy and what will happen if she dies, I get uncomfortable and think: “Stop talking about that… you’ve got a ton of time left.”

Of course, she doesn’t. Neither do I. Nowhere in the Bible or anywhere else are we promised another year, month, week, day, or breath. But we assume. We assume that we’ll be here till we’re 80. And even then people will cry at our funerals and wonder how this tragedy could’ve happened.

One thing I must make clear is that death is a tragedy and was never a part of the original creation. It is the ultimate consequence for sin and one day we will all be resurrected from death to die no more.

That being said, we’re not there yet. One day I will die. You will die. And between now and then you and I will both probably experience great pain. We will both probably get very sick. We’ll probably even get wrinkles and start to shrink. Pain and sickness are both reminders that this life is not it. We will die — that much is unavoidable.

But in a culture where looking fit, healthy and youthful (the denial of the onset and imminence of death?), people don’t want to think about — much less talk about — death and dying. And pain before death becomes in reality a fate worse than death itself.

Why can’t we talk about death? Why do we act like modern science has somehow failed us everytime an 80+ year old great-grandparent “passes away”? Why are we forced to use euphemisms like “passed away” to say that someone died?

Maybe it’s kind of the same reason why we can’t talk about spiritual things? Maybe it’s because it inevitably brings up the topic of the afterlife and the real point of this life. Personally, I feel like the church has really dropped the ball here and become like the rest of our culture.

We need to be people who are open and honest about dying. A people who talk-straight to others about their own mortality and who are honest with them about what they can expect if they are outside Christ when they do finally die.

It used to be (or so I hear) that Christians were the ones who knew how to die well… it made us stand out. Now, we’re just as into the euphemisms as anyone else. We even cling to vain hopes that “maybe all good people will still go to heaven one day” just like the rest of the world. If Christians can’t talk about death with unwavering hope and faith, why should anyone else?

Monday, August 22, 2005

What in the World is Wrong with the West?

I hear rumours. Rumours that in other places of the world you can broach the topic of spiritual things without half of the audience expressing some kind of visible concern.

Why is it in our culture that it is such a struggle to “get into another person’s kitchen” when it comes to their spiritual life?

When we see people we haven’t seen in some time, we can catch up quickly. “Where are you living now?” “How’s so and so?” “Where are you working now?” We can talk about the future: “What are you plans now?” We can even get personal: “How’s your family?” Or more personal: “How’s your love life? Any prospects?” But how bizarre would we seem if we were to ask, “How’s your heart?”

Sadly, it is tough, even in most church settings to get past the old “How was your week?” routine. Why? It’s an overflow of such an impersonal, distanced, media-driven, keeping-up-appearances culture. Isn’t it bizarre that we can sit beside people listening to the Word of God being applied to our hearts for 45 minutes and then turn around and just say, “What’s for lunch?”

Maybe there’s more though… maybe the culture has become the way it has–with spirituality as one of the ultimate taboos–because we’re afraid that things might get messy. If I ask how someone is doing in their walk with Christ, maybe they’ll ask me back? Maybe I would have to admit that this past week has been a struggle. I haven’t loved my wife like I should’ve. I haven’t spent any time in prayer, and my Bible’s been collecting dust. Jesus seems far from me.

But who wants to admit that? It’s so much easier to just talk about the Jays and the weather.

Plus, what if I ask someone about the condition of their heart and they give me an answer that I disagree with? Am I allowed to say something about it, or do I smile and nod? After all, if I were to disagree, that would be making a truth-claim of some sort (heaven forbid). I would hate to appear as a know-it-all, or be characterized as one who thinks he has a “corner on the truth.”

Speaking of which, anyone catch the score of the game last night?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

A Harmful Humility

You all know her. She’s the beauty queen who, for some reason, won’t admit to being beautiful. Some people think she’s fishing for compliments, others think she’s got self-esteem issues. In reality, false humility is just annoying. If you’ve got no reason to think you’re ugly, why insist on it when the evidence is otherwise? That’s not true humility. True humility would be knowing how to acknowledge the truth of a compliment (based on fact) and accept it gracefully. There’s not much nicer than a person who can take a compliment well.

There’s another person we all know. He’s the guy in your class who insists that he really will fail this test this time, even though everyone knows he’s the smartest guy in the class and he has studied for this for weeks. False humility is true pride in disguise.

Why pretend you’re not beautiful when you are? Why pretend you’re not smart when you are? Is it helpful? No, it just annoys people.

Why do Christians nowadays find it so trendy to say “I don’t know” all the time, when we really do?

The plain truth is that we can know truth, and everyone knows it’s true… so why pretend like we can’t? Is that humility?

Moses was the meekest of all men. Seems to me he was pretty certain about some convictions he had. Jesus was meek. People wanted him lynched several times over before he was finally killed for the drastic truth claims he made. Paul, Peter, John… the list goes on and on. They all claimed to know a truth that was worth suffering for. In fact, Paul said in more than one place that he considered that all the sufferings he went through were not even worthy to be compared with what the Lord has for us. Seems to me he was pretty certain about that.

I wonder how many of the saints in Hebrews 11 would concede that perhaps there was salvation outside of God’s revealed plan of redemption? All those guys and gals were special though. Guys like me should maybe be more humble… maybe I shouldn’t get so excited about the things that I “know” to be true, when really it’s just what I “believe.”

That’s not humility.

If the Bible says it, it is true humility to subject myself to its truth, whether or not I can conceive of a God who is glorified in the damnation of millions. I am just a little guy… so why should I be able to conceive of a God anything like the real God of the Bible, the Creator of the universe, the Great I am, who was and is and is to be?

In humility I stand on the authority of the Word of God and declare that salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name by which we may be saved. In humility I confess that I do not comprehend God, but I comprehend things from his Word. Things like the fact that all are guilty and deserving of hell, but are justified (saved, declared innocent, made righteous) because of his grace, through our faith which came to us freely, as a gift from him.

Humility does not demand that I deny I have received these gifts and others have not. Only a fool tries to deny that he has what he has. Humility demands that I stand in a place of awe and wonder that God could love even a sinner like me. Humility demands that I become a servant like the greatest servant the world has ever known — which includes preaching his gospel like he preached it; hell and all. (Or is humility insisting that maybe God should be gracious like I would be, and give everyone a second chance?)

In fact, humility almost begins to look like the opposite of the “I don’t know” chorus line emanating from so many evangelical and emergent circles these days. I do know, because it has been given to me freely. I was blind, now I see. Only a proud fool would shame the one who gave him sight by suggesting — even for a second — that anyone else could provide that sight.

And while we remain ever so humble, being always careful to never insinuate that the gay guy who lives next to me and the devout Muslim down the street are going to hell, they really, really are.

All in the name of humility…

Friday, August 12, 2005

On the Great Irrelevance of the Gospel

Perhaps we’ve missed something. In all of our efforts to “make church relevant”, perhaps we’ve missed that the gospel itself is not relevant. People do not care when we tell them about Jesus. Why should they?

I was listening to an album called Awesome God put out for kids by Sovereign Grace Ministries on the way home in the car tonight. The one song called Have You Heard? has a line that was particularly thought-provoking.

Okay, so a song for kids was “thought-provoking” for me–call me simple, but I think there’s something to it.

Anyway, the song is talking about the gospel and says, “It tells us that Jesus died for us to save us from our sins.” Nothing terribly original yet, I know. The next line, however, says, “This is the best news that we could ever hear.”

Is it? Is it the best news you’ve ever heard? What do you do when you get good news? When you propose and she says “yes” (drug induced or otherwise)? When you find out you got the job? When you find out your wife is pregnant with your first child? When the offer you put in for the house is accepted?

You tell people! You celebrate! You rejoice! It’s a no-brainer. Maybe you even dance a jig (when no one’s looking, of course)!

But how do we react when we hear that Jesus died for us, to save us from our sins? No wonder the world doesn’t find our message relevant. It’s not.

See, the message of the gospel is water. If you’re thirsty, there’s nothing like it. If you’re belly is already full of fluid so that you can hear it jiggle when you move quickly, you’re not interested.

The problem is that we’re trying to force people to drink when they’re just not thirsty. In our world there’s no such thing as sin. If there’s no sin, and I’m not guilty of it, and it really shouldn’t be punished anyway, then why is it good news (the best news!) that Jesus died for my sins? It’s not.

If our message is to be relevant, so that the gospel can be restored to a place where it is the best news people have ever heard, then we need to start by preaching sin. We need to start by showing people that they are thirsty! They have a need! They are hellbound sinners in the hands of an angry God.

A world that is so incredibly “tolerant”, and a philosophical realm where the ultimate ethic is always “justice to the other’s idea” needs to hear that there is right and wrong, sin and righteousness, judgment and forgiveness. No one is interested in drawing these lines anymore, however.

But we need to. We must preach sin if we are to ever preach a relevant saviour. Forgiveness is only the best news ever heard if people have heard that they need it.

Monday, August 08, 2005

A Lesson From a Ballgame

So there I am on a Sunny Sunday afternoon, in a near sold-out Rogers Centre, a good, right, pure, noble Habs Fan, trying to enjoy the baseball game. The one thing that stunk was that the Jays were getting whooped. Ah well. It’s been known to happen.

Anyway, near the beginning of the game, I noticed that a few sections over, down about 12 rows from us is a guy wearing a nice habs hat, and an authentic vintage habs jersey with the #20 and the name Zednik on the back.

“My kinda guy!” I thought, and glibly smiled to myself. I had taken note of the fact that he was wearing a hockey jersey in 40+ degree weather, but hey, whatever.

An inning or so later I noticed that some people were booing when he stood up. Silly Toronto Maple Leaf fans. They wouldn’t know good hockey if it hit ‘em in the ice.

As time went on, however, it began to be a bit more apparent what was happening. He was being antagonistic. He was standing up, showing off the jersey and hollering at various hecklers around him.

Before long this guy had stood up, turned around to face the other fans (ie. back to the game) and was yelling at one and then another. Pretty soon people from my section and the sections on the other side of him were yelling back at him.

In short, the guy was making an idiot of himself. The guy behind and to the left of me yelled “the Canadiens suck!” I turned around to say something, but my loving wife interceded before I got a beer dumped on my head.

Fortunately, I was wise enough to not get involved, but I thought about how that might function as a parable of sorts. How many Christians get drawn into fights trying to defend other Christians, only to find out that the Christian was the one acting like an idiot in the first place?

When that guy behind me was yelling stuff about my precious Canadiens, I just wanted to say, “Hey, don’t judge us by our worst fan!” (If any team is going to be condemned for ignorant and arrogant fans, the Leafs fans should not be the ones to judge.) I wanted to stick up for my team, but it would have meant (at least in some people’s eyes) aligning myself with the goober up in front of us. What a mess.

Yet I wonder how we (Christians) appear to the world. All it takes is one idiot in a bright jersey with a funky hat (a Benny Hinn or Joel Osteen) who gets a lot of attention and people get upset about Christianity. Man, I hate that! All people know when they meet us (especially around where I live where Christianity is Roman Catholicism) is the traditional RC church or Benny Hinn and the “born-agains.”

Do I align myself with them? Alas, usually by the time I finish explaining that I’m not like either and what some of the differences are, people have tuned out. The problem is that I’m not with the goober in the jersey, but am I against him?

I’d be interested in knowing how others deal with this type of situation, because to me it’s a tough one.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Trees, Towers, and Totalitarian RĂ©gimes

What goes up, must come down. That is a principle every bit as elemental in world history as it is in physics. None of us ever really thinks about Canada or the USA one day passing out of existence or falling to some greater world power, but the reality is that nothing is forever. What we must not miss is that it is all within the realm of God’s providence.

There was a time when the population of the world was one nation, with one language, and one purpose. They set their minds to building a city with a tower reaching to the heavens. God had other plans. While they were building, God said “this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they purpose to do will now be impossible for them.” So he confused their languages, so that no one could understand each other. From there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Read the whole story here.)

As we read through the Old Testament in general (the prophetic works in particular), we cannot escape the reality that God is providentially working in all the nations. In order to deliver Israel, he must work plagues on Egypt. He waits till cities and nations have reached their full measure of sin and then executes justice swiftly and accurately. He prophesies blessing, he promises curses; over and over again it is declared that the Lord will work mightily in all the nations of the world to accomplish his purposes. We ought to never forget that politics are within the realm of God’s providence as well, and that no power or nation is more powerful than God.

“Rome will never fall,” they said. Kingdom after kingdom, nation after nation, people after people. One by one they are built up, one by one they fall. We would be foolish to think that this pattern will stop now that we have built a “global village.” Since Babel, the Lord has consistently never allowed a people to attain too much power, too much prestige; they can never build themselves up to him.

No place in Scripture reflects this line of thinking more (I think) than Ezekiel. After deliveing pronouncements of judgment and destruction on Ammon, Moab, Seir, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, and Sidon (25-28), the Lord turns his sights on Egypt (29-32).

My wife and I have been reading through Ezekiel together lately and this passage stuck out to me. In it God makes it plain that he will bring about his purposes in judgment so that he will be made known for who he is. In chapter 31, however, something very interesting happens.

God issues a personal challenge to Pharaoh: “Who do you think you are?” Sure, maybe not in those exact words, but that’s the point. God says, “Take a look at the most powerful people you can possibly think of: Do you think you’re as strong as them? Because I have judged them as well; how do you think you’ll escape?”

God compares Egypt to Assyria. Sure Assyria was great. In fact, it was because it was great that it was judged. “Because it towered high and set its top among the clouds, and its heart was proud of its height, I will give it into the hand of a mighty one of the nations. He shall surely deal with it as its wickedness deserves.”

In that section where God compares Egypt and Assyria, he uses the image of trees to describe the greatness of the nations. The greatest nation is the tallest, most beautiful, most fruitful tree, with branches that other nations can come and find shade under and rest on. Its roots go way down into the earth and it cannot be moved. No other tree can rival the greatness of that tree, and it was God that “made it beautiful.”

One of the most wonderful things that I love about the OT is that consistently, all things are attributed to God and his providence. If Egypt is great, it is because God has made it so, not Pharaoh. If Assyria is brought down, it is God’s judgment, not another nation’s power. God makes the trees grow; God chops them down. No exceptions. How we need to capture that God-centred vision of reality again today!

God is sovereign over all the nations. But more than that, he desires that we know that he is sovereign–that he is the one in control of all of history–that he is the one in whom all things find their meaning. This emphasis cannot be missed in the book of Ezekiel as a whole, or in these chapters in particular (how’s this for a recurring theme?).

We are not those who place our hope in institutions (nations, denominations, churches, organizations, etc.), because all these will rise and fall. The Lord is the one constant, and he desires that we know that. That’s why in all history nations will wax and wane, rise and fall, triumph and fail, but he will always remain.

But that’s macro. What about micro? What about me?

Is the same principal true in my own life? In my spiritual life and my walk with the Lord? Perhaps that is worthy of consideration in another post.

For now though, I think that the point we cannot miss is that God is good and providentially in control of all this crazy world. He has a purpose for it, and we must not miss that. We cannot be afraid to embrace God as the one from whom and through whom and to whom all things exist to his glory.

We may try to build our towers, but the Lord can confuse our tongues. Our nations may prosper high as the cedars of Lebanon (tall as a BC oak), but the Lord wields the chainsaw. And its all to his glory.