Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Gifts for Good

I am in the process of reading a series of articles pertaining to our spiritual gifts. Of course the usual encouragement to find our gifts and put ourselves in the position to use our gifts is ever present. But there are some things I still am not sure about, but know it is popular for many Christians to believe.

First of all, the idea that we need to "find" our gift is interesting to me. Not because it is worthy of much thought, but because it is so strange. Granted, the gift of the Spirit was always preached, and there seemed to be a need for people to understand it. However, the manifestation of the Spirit empowering believers in different areas was simply evidence of the Spirit's work among God's people. It was obvious. And, it was only addressed in Scripture in the context of why and how we use those gifts. Not much, if at all, is addressed concerning finding our gifts.

Maybe someone can make the argument that since Paul wrote in Romans 12 that we need to serve with whatever gift we have, that it implies that in order for one to do so, one must know what one's gift is. I am not sure about that. What if that passage simply means that the natural action we take after spending our time renewing our minds and serving the body of Christ will be to use our gifts in the process.

Additionally, the passage in 1 Corinthians 12 addressing the various gifts in the Church is offering a similar explanation from the perspective of exhorting people to stop valuing gifts more than their purpose. Rather use the gifts they have to edify and build up the Church. In other words, using our gifts to serve one another should be the natural result of understanding who we are in Christ (renewal of mind).

This idea is carried over in Ephesians 4 as well. Paul is saying that our gifts (or rather our differences) are necessary to help the Church grow and mature. They should be a source to perpetuate unity instead of division. The ultimate goal being that a change in mindset should be occurring, and as a result, the whole body of Christ will serve and grow. This brings us to an interesting problem.

When we view our spiritual gifts from the perspective of our current culture, we naturally have to separate our spiritual gifts from our natural talents and abilities. There is some truth to this, but it can be a problematic, because all our abilities and talents are, well, spiritual. God made us and endowed us with gifts at birth. On the other hand, Jesus did do something new when he conquered death according to Ephesians 4. He spread gifts to men. So in a since, we are given something new as a result of being in Christ, but that doesn't matter. In Christ all that we do is colored by Christ.

For instance, if I am a civil engineer by trade before becoming a Christian, that doesn't change after I become a Christian. But that trade becomes a holy work of God, because of Christ. I no longer see civil engineering the same way anymore. I rather see the will of God in my work, in how I work, and in what that work is suppose to be like. I can see this trade's true intent; its true nature from the perspective of a Christian reference point.

So, what difference does that make? A lot. From a less developed perspective, a person may value seeking out their gifts as the best way to serve God effectively. In fact, in one article the author went so far as to say that if we serve where we are not gifted, we will not produce any fruit. I bristle at that thought. The only reference in Scripture to fruit-bearing in our lives is what Jesus said about our abiding in him (John 15). The act of abiding in Jesus (finding our sense of meaning, purpose, and sustenance in Jesus) is the main reason we bear any fruit. It is not about fitting our gifts to our ministries. If we abide in Jesus, no matter what we do, we will bear fruit. Therefore, maturity in Christ as we serve each other is what will bear fruit.

Finally, I've seen people produce great results from doing a gifts inventory, and working in a ministry they enjoy—even when they didn't know Christ. But the results, or rather fruit, is all about what God is looking for, not what we are looking for. I want to be very careful about this. It is about what God is looking for, not what we are looking for. The New Testament is very clear. Don't spend too much time assessing your gifts. Spend your time renewing your thought patterns; submitting them to Christ. And as a result, serve your fellow believers and help your neighbors, so that they too can be transformed by Christ. You can't help but be empowered by the Holy Spirit when you do these things. Be filled with the Spirit, not methodologies.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Social Justice

Social justice means different things to different people. But generally speaking, most people who advocate for social justice do so in opposition to poverty, hate, sexism, racism, economic oppression, and authoritarianism (not necessarily totalitarianism). Conversely the same advocates would be in favor of equality for people of different cultures, sexual orientations, or religions. They also would favor more government control over equal distributions of wealth, over access to goods and services, and over the behavior of citizens (as long as it doesn't violate individual freedoms of speech).

In the mind of a social justice advocate the problems of mankind stem from being out of step with nature, being greedy, and being religiously dogmatic. These things are enemies to their plan of redemption. In some of their minds, we are products of evolutionary processes, so the goal of mankind is to get back in harmony with the natural. This means sexual revolution, preservation of the environment, the end of national borders (and war), and the proliferation of rights. Additionally, the practice of religion is to be seen as the experience of either culture or healthy lifestyles -- not as truth claims.

But do all social justice advocates see the world this way. No. The ones that don't tend to have a confused overarching worldview. For instance, in advocating for free speech, is it right to call black people "n--gers"? If not, what constitutes free speech? Who decides? A person with an inconsistent worldview would not know what to do with that. However, many do have a consistent worldview.

Those who advocate social justice argue from a consistent set of principles. I know, because I was one of them at one time. Just prior to becoming an advocate, I had an inconsistent worldview about these matters. I was against big corporations, but also against unemployment. I was for abortion, but against infanticide. Then for a time I began to develop a more consistent worldview when I decided that according to evolutionary theory, there are no overarching moral absolutes, just preferences. The enforcement of preferences by power was what made things true or false. Therefore, do whatever you want, for tomorrow you die.

Being an advocate became the natural reaction, because by power I can create the world the way I want it to be: a world absent of war, poverty, or pain, but present with happiness, love, and peace. Through power, or rather revolution of like-minded people, we can create this world.

But in 1986 it all changed for me. I became a Christian. Not religious. A Christian.

I accepted a Christian worldview because I found out that Jesus was a real person that really rose from the dead. Therefore, it became apparent to me that Jesus is God who visited humanity within history. I was confronted with a new, but remarkable reality. God really is. He really made us, and we are accountable to Him. Our problems stem, not from our divorce from nature, but rather our divorce from God. We went our own way and are suffering for that decision. God chose to redeem mankind by coming in history to pay for our sins with his life.

After doing so, the message had to spread so that people everywhere can experience salvation. But in order for people to experience this salvation, they must turn to God and accept the truth of the message -- this view of the world and the solution from God's perspective. Eventually, our redemption will be complete when Jesus comes back to remake the world for those who believe. A world free from war, pain, sorrow, and sickness. A world full of joy, laughter, and incredible love. A world where Jesus our God is King-- a righteous and benevolent King -- instead of self- indulgent people or governments. A world where we will live in true peace and safety -- not in fear of the self-centered and manipulators.

This view of reality is more and more entrenched into my psyche because I find on a daily basis that it is thoroughly consistent with my personal experiences and deepest longings. And it is consistent with the suffering we experience. It is also consistent with increasing knowledge, through science and discoveries, of our origins and universal environment. Finally, it is consistent with the evidence that we all intrinsically know something is wrong, and we want to fix it. Yet we have been unable to fix it throughout all of time. We are incapable, because we are part of the problem. We need help from outside of our decaying circumstances. We need a Savior.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Do We Really Believe What Jesus Said?

When Peter told Jesus he was willing to die for him, Jesus told him he would deny him three times before the roster crows. However, Peter was emphatic that Jesus must of been wrong, because he thought he knew himself better than Jesus did.

Sadly, Peter came to a painful reality about himself and about Jesus. He did the very things Jesus said he would do. Peter discovered that in his own weakness and failure he was unable to live up to even his own ideals. And he also discovered that even though Jesus knew all about this, still loved him and called him to service. Peter came to understand that he needed Jesus much more than Jesus needed him, and that Jesus' call on his life was an act of mercy, not employment. Peter's ability was never the main issue in serving Christ, but simple submission and gratitude.

Today, we are sometimes as emphatic as Peter was. Although Jesus said he would allow the wheat and weeds to grow up together, we insist that we can make our churches "effective." We just need a "revival." Although Jesus said that in the last days, brother will betray brother, and the love of some will grow cold, we insist we can make our churches havens from fighting and division, and no one will fall away from the faith. Even though Jesus made it clear that our true home is in heaven, we build our lives here like this is our home forever. Jesus said that His kingdom is from another place, built not by human hands. But many insist that we must work to make the world a better place, instead of work to spread the Gospel of God's salvation. If we do not outright say these things, what we really believe is revealed by what we focus on and what we fear.

Therefore, in order to deal with bad news from Jesus appropriately, we must first accept Jesus at His word. When we accept Him at His word, we begin to accept reality. As a result we will be able to accept our own human failings, and learn to lean on the grace of God found in Christ -- which is what is trully holding any of us up. And don't follow the way of Judas, who took matters into his own hands. He tried to atone for his own sin, and he was condemned.

Friday, October 14, 2005

What Would Church Be Like in the Future?

According to a recent report by George Barna Research, there is a new movement occurring among believers. Barna names the members of this movement, Revolutionaries. These Revolutionaries are people who don't see church as a place, or simply a group that one belongs to. They view the Church as something that you are. And wherever you are, the Church exists.

They are also looking for a deeper relationship with God than simply church attendance, and worship Sundays. They want a daily walk with God that is robust and meaningful. They shape their worldviews by the mind of Christ rather than popular opinions or group-think. Although Barna predicts that Revolutionaries will begin to drop out of traditional local churches, it will not be for the usual reasons. His report states,

Using survey data and other cultural indicators he has been measuring for more than two decades, Barna estimates that the local church is presently the primary form of faith experience and expression for about two-thirds of the nation'’s adults. He projects that by 2025 the local church will lose roughly half of its current "“market share"” and that alternative forms of faith experience and expression will pick up the slack. Importantly, Barna's studies do not suggest that most people will drop out of a local church to simply ignore spirituality or be freed up from the demands of church life... A growing percentage of church dropouts will be those who leave a local church in order to intentionally increase their focus on faith and to relate to God through different means.

That growth is fueling alternative forms of organized spirituality, as well as individualized faith experience and expression. Examples of these new approaches include involvement in a house church, participation in marketplace ministries, use of the Internet to satisfy various faith-related needs or interests, and the development of unique and intense connections with other people who are deeply committed to their pursuit of God.

I have to say that I can relate with this phenomenon. In my heart I desire to experience deeper closeness to Jesus. I also realize that local Churches tend to stifle growth for one reason or another. The local Churches' interest is sometimes worldly. The reliance on programs and current educational models to initiate transformation is sometimes too great. The faith and worship experiences are often too tied to cultural concerns. And relationships often have to fit around the activities created by too broad a group of church-goers (genuine believers, severely immature believers, and the lukewarm Sunday attenders).

Many years ago, around the 1800's there was a similar movement called the Restoration movement. The rallying cry of Barton Stone was to move away from Christian sectarianism toward a unified experience of Christian faith. The central belief was that we all need to focus more on being "Christians only." In so doing, we will restore a New Testament form of Church, like in Acts. In fact in Barna's report, he mentions that this Revolution is essentially doing the same thing.

However, with every movement of men there are always elements of, well, sectarianism. In the Restoration Movement, the seeds of this sectarianism came with some of the teachings of Joseph Campbell. The idea that we can reason our differences on biblical essentials ("Speak where the Bible speaks. Silent where the Bible is silent.") became a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the Bible is a great source of objective data on what God did and said, what Jesus did and said, and what the apostles did and said. Also it is a good source of testimony to what has happened in the past that influences our faith in the present. But, as what usually happens, we interpret what the Bible doesn't say, which leads to the differences of opinion.

If you view differences such as these as a matter of preferences essential to the work of the Gospel, then disagreements that may arise are seen as part of the process of maturity and grace. But if you view even these types of differences as threatening to the work of the Gospel -- even distorting the Gospel -- then division is likely to be the only remedy.

So, I don't put much stock in movements of men, though I take them seriously. It exposes a desire deep inside ourselves, crying out for a Savior. However, I believe that no matter what happens, God will direct its happening to bring about the results He desires. The Gospel does not, nor never did, depend on us. It will not take good men, great men, or bad men to bring about what God desires. It will only take God, and those He chooses to use for His purposes.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Palm Sunday: Poll-Driven Christianity

From first glance, you might get the impression that this article is about the evils of seeker-sensitive church services, or you may get the idea that this is about christianity that seeks to fit into the worldly culture by compromising. Well, this is not the case.

I don't have any particular problem with seeker-sensitive churches or practices per se. I don't even have a problem with music or forms of religion that seem worldly. But there is a problem of worldliness within individual christians like me.

You see, using the things of this world is quite different than lusting after the things of this world -- as if the things of this world will fulfill us and make us whole. A musical beat or chord of sound is neither good nor bad. But attributing magical power to these things, or using it to preach a false message is bad. The battle against worldliness is not about the forms, but the evil desires from within that seek satisfaction outside of God.

Palm Sunday should serve as an example to us. This is the day where Christians commemorate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem just before his death. (Matthew 21:1-16) At that time Jesus rides into Jerusalem riding on a donkey in fulfillment of Scripture. (Zechariah 9:9)

The people cut branches (traditionally palm branches) and placed them on the ground for him to tred on. This was done in honor of Jesus. The people are shouting "HOSANNA! To the Son of David!" and so forth, in anticipation that he was the king who was prophesied about; the coming Messiah they had hoped for.

But the people eventually became less enthusiastic. They could not decide whether they believed the religious leaders or this Jesus. (Is he really the Messiah they were waiting for?) If polls were taken in those days like today, we might report that his popularity was beginning to slip percentage-wise. Eventually, the crowds turned against him, and demanded is public execution on a Roman cross. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied that he even knew him. All of his disciples fled from him.

And the reason this happened is not all that complicated. Jesus was not popular with the right people. You know what I mean. For many of us, we live this tightrope everyday. If we are in high school, being on the wrong side of the "Alpha" girls, the cool, or the popular is socially disasterous. In college as a student, it may be a fraternity or sorority, or a popular viewpoint. Or as a professor, their peers or popular culture. In the work world, it may be a boss, a particular group of co-workers, or the organizational mindset. In families, it may be our parents or our family's religious affiliation. In society it may be a racial or political group. It doesn't matter what group of people we are afraid to displease, our well-being can be severly affected by the approval of that group.

Considering how we deal with Jesus, our motives are generally the same when we deny him in word or deed. We are afraid of people. We are afraid of what others might think of us. We believe that other people hold the key to our happiness and fulfillment. We are essentially cowards.

So what is the solution? Admit it. Then gaze upon the cross where Jesus is hung with nails. Notice the empty tomb. Rejoice that he made a way. Pledge your alligence to Jesus as God and Savior. And never let go of him to the very end. (Galatians 2:11-21)