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Keeping the Lamps Lit

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

– Matthew 25:1-13

I recently watched a little video on Facebook. It was a short clip from 2015 of Keith Ellison, a Muslim congressman, encouraging Democrats to mobilize because otherwise the country might face a Trump presidency. The television hosts, two well-known political commentators with decades of experience between them, laughed smugly, then the clip ended. He could never be president, they thought – the people would never accept that. Of course, they were wrong – the Trump presidency began in eight months ago, though it seems like longer.

Regardless of what one thinks about our president, the fact that he, a billionaire known for belligerence and self-centered callousness, a man with no experience in public service in any capacity, a man with a history of philandering and sexualizing his children, is the President of the United States should indicate that we are in uncharted territory. Nationalism is back in vogue worldwide in ways unseen for the better part of a century. Racial divisions are growing deeper in the United States as White supremacy migrates from the periphery of our political discourse to the mainstream with the euphemistically named “alt-right.” Political aggression and hostility are alternately winked at and actively encouraged by the man who occupies the Oval Office. When we turn on the news, we often see terrorist attacks and decapitations on the other side of the world and brutal suppression of protest here at home. These are troubled times. Violence is in the air.

What is the role of the Christian in Babylon? What can we do when the virtuous are condemned as guilty and the guilty are lauded as virtuous? What can we do when those who claim holiness live like the world and those who claim  righteousness are mute before evil? When our trusted leaders in media are like jabbering monkeys, spouting nonsense at ever-increasing volumes? When our senses and sensibilities are so overstimulated that our drowsy eyes only focus when the sensuality of the whore rides the violence of the beast? Do we roll up our sleeves and “fight the power” in the streets? Do we withdraw to the hermit’s cave and await the day of the Lord?

Followers of Jesus must stand boldly in the gap between passive acceptance and violent resistance, refusing to fight, but also refusing to back down. We must choose between letting ourselves and our brothers be helpless victims of a deadly system and inviting aggression by our very stand for righteousness. We must climb the cross with Christ daily, and we must prepare our hearts for the martyr’s crown. I don’t have a grand plan for Christian resistance to Empire, but I do know that it involves being ready to heed the call of Christ – even unto ridicule, even unto poverty, even unto death.

Friends, this isn’t something we can do alone: “Though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” We all need to find the community of disciples that will help us become fit to enlist in the army of the Lamb. For me, that community is the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, which regularly challenges me to serve more, love more and give more than I ever thought I could. Your community may be different, but we all need brothers and sisters in arms to help us to draw closer to Christ, who gives courage to the timid, restraint to the foolhardy, passion to the reserved and wisdom to the hot blooded. We need to be vigilant because we may be called on at any moment to witness to the sovereignty of God. 

Will we be ready?

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Integrity and the Lie of “Authenticity”

When you’re not living faithfully to your authentic self, you find yourself feeling incomplete, as if there is a hole in your soul. You may have found that it’s easier to fill the roles your family and friends expect of you, rather than becoming who you really want to be. Living this way drains you of the critical life energy you need to pursue the things you truly value. When you live a life that has you ignoring your true gifts and talents while performing assigned or inherited roles instead, you are living as your fictional self.

– Dr. Phil, Defining Your Authentic Self

True confession: I still use printed dictionaries. The Internet is all well and good for a quick check, but when accuracy matters, I pull out my trusty Thorndike Barnhart Advanced Dictionary. And it matters. Take “integrity” for example, a venerable Quaker value that seems to be undergoing covert transformation.  Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines integrity as “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values :  incorruptibility.” The print dictionary’s definition is “honesty or sincerity; uprightness.”

Did you catch that difference? The online dictionary’s definition of integrity is adherence to any code of moral or artistic values. It’s a do-it-yourself thing. Whatever code of values you have, if you stick to it, you can be said to have integrity. By contrast, under the print dictionary’s definition, integrity has an intrinsic content. If you lack honesty and uprightness, it is irrelevant what other moral characteristics you may possess: you don’t have integrity.

This is key because part of what integrity used to mean was standing by your commitments even in the face of changing circumstances. Now the word seems to be shading into what I call “authenticity”  – action as a performance of identity rather than as an embodiment of core values. So if you “discover” that you are an artist and the only way to be the artist you want to be is to live in a free-love nudist colony, “old-fashioned” integrity would say that you do not have the right to abandon your spouse and children to pursue that dream due to your obligations to them, while “integrity as authenticity” may well excuse such an action as “following your bliss” – despite the fact that it entails abandoning some of life’s greatest commitments. The slippage between these concepts is such that “integrity” now either means “standing by your commitments, come what may,” or “subordinating your commitments to your desires.” One type of integrity leads to self-control, patience and devotion to others, while the other form of “integrity” can easily lead to impulsive behavior, unreliability and self-centeredness.

Some may think that this means that old-fashioned integrity and authenticity are inconsistent, and for some, this may be true. However, I affirm that for Christians, there is no tension between integrity and authenticity, properly understood. That is because our true self, our authentic identity, is who we are in Christ. In him we are given a new nature. No longer slaves to our desires and weaknesses, we are children of the Most High, a royal priesthood, the new Israel. God, who is always faithful to his promises, seeks a holy people who will be faithful to their promises. He seeks a bold and valiant people unswayed by external pressures but doggedly determined to do his will and to follow his law, which is written on our hearts.

It’s hard to shake the habit of inconsistency – especially when we are overtired, overworked, over-scheduled and overwhelmed. It’s something that I struggle with daily – and fail at often! But I believe that a promise-keeping God wants a promise-keeping people, not people who, confusing their desires with their true self, make those desires into idols.

How do you understand integrity and authenticity? Have you struggled with becoming more faithful in the different parts of your life?

Looking for the Worst in Others

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The Word is Love

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

– 1 John 4: 7-12

It is easy to feel angry and alienated in America today. Many of us don’t know our neighbors. We are deeply divided in our attitudes about religious faith, the role of government and the ideal family structure. Our political climate is toxic. And while not all of us sit before our Twitter feeds eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to condemn someone’s abuse of privilege, most of us are all too familiar with the thrill that comes with self-righteously condemning someone who disagrees with us or who has offended us in some way.

This attitude of eagerly taking offense has become an integral part of the Babylon mindset, and for good reason. Our post-modern perspective values personal experience over argumentation. Call-out culture makes a virtue out of publicly shaming putative bigots, while its 4chan analogue derides the “social justice warriors” and “liberal snowflakes” who cry foul at anything they judge to be neoliberal or neocolonial or any other crime listed on the ever-growing list of “thou shalt nots”. Even on issues as nuanced and important as abortion, free speech, gun control and the like, it can be almost impossible, in this partisan atmosphere, to get people to admit that there are complexities to resolve. Instead, many seem to prefer to hurl insults and insinuations or to congratulate themselves on their own supposed wisdom.

As poorly as this attitude of closed-minded self-righteousness serves us in the political sphere – and, judging by the gridlock in Congress, it serves us terribly –  it serves us even worse in the spiritual one. Our eagerness to identify wrongdoing by others and punish them for it often approaches bloodlust, perverting the call to seek justice that echoes through the words of the prophets. It is the polar opposite of the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It is a rejection of the submission that acknowledges that vengeance belongs to God alone

Jesus did not hesitate to name oppression. Neither should we. But when Jesus railed at the scribes and the Pharisees, when he decried the profanity of the money changers in the temple, he was already on a path to performing the greatest act of sacrificial love the world has ever known: his blameless death on the cross. And he went to the cross to free the very people whose sinful behaviors he had called out from slavery to sin. 

So before we call people out for hypocrisy or arrogance or degeneracy or callousness, let’s stop and ask ourselves: Have we loved them? Have we sacrificed for them? Have we bled for them? Do we plan to? If not, our criticism sounds less like Jesus and more like the self-righteous men he rebuked. Jesus gave us a beautiful example of speaking the truth in love. Let’s follow it.

Is Church for Rich People?

And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:”I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent.”

– Revelation 3:14-19

The first disciples of Christ were regular people. They were poor fishermen and despised tax collectors. They were disenfranchised women. They were slaves. Like so many of us today, most of Christ’s earliest followers were either in a perpetual state of financial emergency or one disaster away from calamity. Out of the dirt of poverty and financial insecurity grew the flowers of fellowship in Christ. They sold what they had and kept the money they made in common. They came together regularly to pray, hear the gospel and share it with others, and visit the sick. They worked just enough to feed their families and give some to the poor(er), devoting the rest of their time and energy to manifesting the Kingdom of Heaven according to their gifts. This investment was rewarded: God regularly used their faith to perform miracles and they walked in joy. The earliest Christians lived not by the work of their own hands but by the providence of their Father and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Could the church here in America be any more different? My own faith group, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), is one of the best-educated denominations in the country, with an overwhelmingly middle- and upper-class membership. While pockets of Gospel community exist, in my experience, we have overwhelmingly bought into the cultural paradigm of the all-American striver class, including its focus on individual markers of success: accomplishments in education and career, home ownership, discreet bourgeois consumerism and pushing our children toward the same. Largely satisfied with the fruit of our own efforts, or compelled by a desire to keep up with the Joneses to pretend that we are, we often experience church as an extra, an hours-long leisure activity that provides a feeling of quietness easily mistaken for peace and a glow of religiosity easily confused with holiness.

It is little wonder that, despite stereotypes to the contrary, the poor and working class have, in recent years, had much greater drops in religious engagement than wealthier classes. They may not have a work or family schedule that allows for a weekly commitment slicing through the middle of the day, especially one where:

  • Many people believe they are already “pretty good” and therefore desire more to be affirmed than to be challenged or transformed;
  • Many people prefer a superficial weekly companionship to an every-single-day community that has claims on their time, energy, money and behavior;
  • Many people are entirely comfortable being dismissive of those on public benefits, those without advanced degrees, those who struggle with addiction, those who have criminal histories, and so on;
  • Many people are deeply uncomfortable with the displays of grief, anger, jubilation and other powerful emotions that accompany the convicting, liberating and transforming work of the Holy Spirit; and
  • Many people are skeptical as to whether God is truly capable of healing, renewing, assisting and protecting his people.

As long we continue on as we have been going – as long as the main form of meaningful participation is a single weekly ceremony, as long as the Gospel is watered down or not proclaimed at all, as long as we are so much more invested in our own personal success than that of the Kingdom of God, as long as our love for one another is grounded in natural affinity rather than a shared desire to be faithful disciples, as long as we say to our brother “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,”  without troubling ourselves about whether he can earn his daily bread – many who struggle, many who are excluded and many who suffer will determine that they have neither the time nor the patience for our “religion.” And guess what? Neither does God.

The Benedict Option

Here’s the paradox of the Benedict Option: if the church is going to be the blessing for the world that God means for it to be, then it is going to have to spend more time away from the world deepening its commitment to God, to scripture, to tradition, and to each other. We cannot give to the world what we do not have. We should engage with the world, but not at the expense of our fidelity and our sense of ourselves as a people set apart. We must somehow walk a path between the Christian fundamentalists who reject everything about the world and the accomodationists who love the world so much that they rationalize idol-worship for the sake of preserving their privileges. “Engaging the culture” must never become an excuse to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar. Winsomeness must never be a veil concealing our cowardice from ourselves.

There must have been something about the daily lives of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Babylon that trained them spiritually so that when they were put to the ultimate test, they passed. It must be that way with us, too. We are failing at this today, and failing badly. The numbers I cited earlier tell a tale of Christian infidelity. If we don’t change our way of living, we will not survive as the church. We will be assimilated. There is no middle way…

If we are going to stay true to our faith, we are going to have to listen to voices from outside the here and now – authoritative voices from the Christian past, especially the premodern era. How else are we going to be able to tell the difference between those who speak comforting lies that we want to hear and those who, like Jeremiah, preach the prophetic word of God? We must beware of religious leaders who are content to be chaplains to the contemporary cultural order. That way is death.

– Rod Dreher, Signs of the Times, Plough Quarterly, Issue 13

 

Proclaiming God’s Obnoxious Holiness

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In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

– Isaiah 6:1-5

I love feeling close to God. Maybe you know it, that cozy feeling of intimacy, when in prayer or worship you feel so happy and at peace that it’s like God is giving you a big hug. I believe that this intimacy with God, this sense of being fully known and fully loved, and of knowing God in a deep and deeply personal way, is a key part of God’s plan in Jesus. Through Jesus, God reveals his nature so clearly.  Both by reading  about his ministry and sacrifice on the cross in the Bible and by listening to the promptings of his Spirit in our hearts, we come to know Jesus and, by knowing Jesus, we get a clear understanding of who God is and the depth of his love for us. On top of that, Jesus shows us how to relate to God as a caring and tender father. Isn’t that awesome? This invitation to closeness with God is one of the best parts of being a Christian.

Unfortunately, intimacy with God can obscure one of his defining features: holiness.

To be holy means to be set apart as sacred. When we say that God is holy, it means that he is so elevated and pure that his nature is actually alien to every created thing – including us. Not only do we not have a right to approach God as an intimate, but there is a real sense in which we are not, in our human nature, able to approach him at all. God’s holiness is emphasized throughout the Bible. Moses is told to remove his shoes before the burning bush because even the dirt surrounding God’s presence is holy ground. The prophet Isaiah cries out in fear after being given a vision of the Lord because when a man – a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips –  looks on the face of God, he should surely die. In fact, a key reason that Jesus was crucified is that the Jewish religious authorities of his day viewed him as a brazen blasphemer. Not only did Jesus have the nerve to violate the sacred rest of the Sabbath by healing the sick, but he also had the gall to call himself God’s own son! What mortal man can claim that kind of relationship to the Living God, the Holy One? Daring to utter such heresy could only lead to one punishment: death.

When we insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, the humans and their appetites are “naturally” good, that we are capable of doing what is best for ourselves without God’s help, we diminish God’s holiness by implying that we are just as righteous and pure as he is. For those who dismiss disciplines like fasting, chastity and secrecy as relics of an oppressive and unenlightened age, insisting on God’s holiness may seem obnoxious, even offensive. However, it is only by recognizing God’s purity and power as Lord of Creation, only by grasping his absolute faithfulness and goodness and justice, only by grasping our own weakness, egotism and inconsistency, that we can understand the absolute revolution that Jesus Christ represents. 

As men and women, we overeat. We lose our temper. We curse at drivers on the freeway. We put our own lusts and selfish desires above obedience to God or service to others. Even babies, innocent in so many ways, take what they want and hit, bite and scratch to keep what they have. Acknowledging God’s holiness means acknowledging that we aren’t, in ourselves, good enough for him or good – period. It means recognizing that there is a life beyond our dust and dirt that we, in our humanity, cannot attain. What, after all, do we – people of unclean lips – have in common with the purity and perfection of our Creator?

Nothing but Jesus. In him, humanity and divinity meet in an intimate embrace. He is the Word in whose being we have our foundation and he is the Light who enlightens every single person on the earth – even you and me, with all our flaws. He invites us into God’s holiness by planting deep in us the Holy Spirit, which takes us beyond the fully human into the power and presence of God. Out of that Holy Spirit – a Spirit fully accessible to each of us, but whose essence is that of a holy God rather than an earthly man – flows the supernatural gifts of prophecy, of healing, of effective prayer, of discernment.

Each of us, even those who totally reject God, has a shadowy version of many of God’s traits: our measure of strength shows us God’s awesome power, our desire for fairness suggests God’s perfect justice, our impulse to tenderness hints at God’s tremendous love. However, holiness is God’s alone. He calls us to share in his holiness, but we can only be holy in proportion to our obedience to God and our trust in him. As we yield our will to his, we will become more careful with our words and thoughts, more aware of our dress and manner, more conscious of how we eat and drink, turning all elements of life to God’s glory. That is, we will become more and more distinct from a world that rejects the very idea the sacred and set apart. Paradoxically, the holier we become, the more we respect God’s holiness – and the more we can experience the precious intimacy of his love.

Jesus himself insists that we can approach God with “Dad” (Abba) on our lips: we can boldly ask him for what we need and know that he will provide. But let us never use the closeness we have with our Father as an excuse to deny God the reverence and obedience that he is due. Let us instead proclaim, like the seraphim, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!”