Thursday, May 28, 2009

Holidays and Holy Days

We've just gone through a national holiday (Memorial Day) and we are between two significant days of the Church Year, Ascension and Pentecost. This has caused me to reflect on some of the differences between holidays (popularly understood) and holy days (which are hardly recognized and understood at all (culturally speaking).

Some holidays have their true origin in holy days, but the former has mostly choked out the latter, the prime example being Christmas. The "world" is through with Christmas just as the Church truly welcomes it (which could be a boon for the Church if used strategically).

Holidays are quite transitory. They give brief interruptions of the daily grind, usually offering an excuse (as if our culture needs one) to eat and drink to excess. And while a break in the routine is indeed beneficial for people who are too busy, there is a self-centeredness (at least to me as I look on) to the way our culture uses holidays.

National holidays, when kept with their true focus, can quickly degenerate into self-centeredness through the kind of nationalism that condones a sought-after superiority which essentially dismisses the needs and feelings of much of the world. Yet even national holidays are essentially ignored by a large number of the population and become, I repeat, an indulgent excuse to eat and drink and purchase and "recreate" in excess.

It amazes me the way nationalism invades churches. In my previous free-church tradition, Memorial Weekend would draw specific attention while Pentecost (which often falls on the Sunday of Memorial Weekend) would not even be mentioned! For years I have wondered what an international visitor might think on the Sunday close to July 4 when songs glorifying America are brought into the Church (which is a transnational community of members whose allegiances supposedly transcend the citizenships of this world). Do some people seriously believe that America is the ultimate tangible example of Christian Faith?

I found great delight this year in the celebration of Ascension. How wonderful it is that Jesus has taken His humanity into heaven and thus prepared the way for all who follow Him. There is a tangible reason to seek the things that are above. It is because that is where Christ is, and Christians are "in Him" (see Colossians 3).

Pentecost ranks along with Christmas and Easter. The purpose and meaning of the birth and resurrection of Christ are found in the birth of the Church and the indwelling of the Spirit in each person who belongs to Christ (see Romans 8:9-11).

Holidays (as such) come and go. Holy days draw us into and help prepare us for what will not pass away. Rejoice in the Lord always.... but especially on holy days.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Vanity Fair

From the Morning Office:

See how the wicked prowl on every side,
while the worthless are prized highly by the sons of men.
(Psalm 12)

As I read these words my mind's eye saw the magazine covers on display at the supermarket check-out and the TV tabloid shows, so much of which "prize highly the worthless." We are surrounded by the vanity of the City of Man.

Morning Prayer then offers:

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?
Who shall stand in his holy place?
The [one] ....who desires not worthless things.
(Psalm 24)

What do we "prize?" Our Lord says, For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Lu 12:34).

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Contra Babylon, cont.

What does it mean to choose the City of God over the City of Man? Volumes have been, and could continue to be, written about this. There is no short, simple answer.

One facet of the total answer does not appear to get respectful attention in the broad discussions of contemporary Christianity: Separation from the world— what Niebuhr called “Christ against culture” — seems to be disdained as some reactionary fundamentalism.

My early discipleship was formed by a faith community that seriously understood “worldliness” as sinful. Continuing to think about the implications of Revelation 18 and the reality of “Babylon,” I am reflecting on the implications of what the Spirit of Jesus gives John as a message to the Church: Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues (18:4).

I know this has been used to justify all kinds of self-righteous actions and schism in the Church. There is tension between unity and purity. We do not need proscriptions that tell people exactly what they can and cannot do, but to go from that stance to saying nothing is tragic. When people in the Church go after the same kinds of things that our pagan neighbors are going after, with the same intensity, something is wrong. It doesn't matter what the particular "thing" might be.

There is a hard truth here. Throughout the Scriptures, in this adversarial relationship between the City of Man and the City of God, there is an issue of “separation.” We can see it in the call of Abraham. God said, "Abram, I want to do a great thing through you, but if it's going to happen, you have to get away. If you stay in your hometown with the relatives and their pagan ways, I will not be able to do through you what I need to do. I will take you to a land that you know nothing of — where you don't know the customs and where the people do not know you, and where your dependence will be on me." It is out of that kind of attitude and relationship with God that we learn what separation is — that our dependence is on God.

One reason God put Israel into Egypt and then brought them out of Egypt all over again was to give His people a unique identity. From that point there is a concern for Israel to be separate. When they moved back to the land after the Exodus, God told them: "You are to be my people. I am going to move you among people whose ways are not my ways. You are not to inter-marry with them. You are to be my chosen people — my separate people." The truth of the theme has not changed. Isaiah continues the theme: Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the Lord (52:11). The same concern follows in Jeremiah: Come out of her, my people! Run for your lives! Run from the fierce anger of the Lord (51:45). He is talking about Babylon, so there is a direct analogy here.

The same concern is in the Epistles: Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with a unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and an idol? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people."

Therefore come out from them and be separate,"
says the Lord.
"Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you."
"I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty
" (2Cor. 6:14,15).

I know there are periods in church history where there have been excesses and abuses with this theme. An obsession with it leads to legalism and abuse. On the other hand, there is today both ignorance and dismissal of an important issue. Many Christians invite the "unclean thing" into their homes through television and computer connections. We need to know there is a principle of separation to which God calls His people. We are called to be different and distinctive, not because we're “Pharisees” — legalists — but because we are sensitive to the truth that Jesus really does live in His people and calls them to be holy.

In Jesus' prayer (John 17) He says, Father I do not pray that you would take them out of the world. So when I say "separation" I don't mean withdrawing from all contact with the "world." Some Christian communities try that, either overtly (like the Amish) or in attitude (like radical fundamentalists). Jesus is saying that in the way we interact with the world, we are not to be like the world. But Jesus does, in fact, say, I leave them in the world. Why? So we can be salt and light. How can we be salt and light if we are not distinctive?

John Bunyan wrote a book that almost everyone just a few generations ago would have read as part of standard education. I think it would be a good thing for present-day believers to read The Pilgrim's Progress. In one part of his journey, Pilgrim comes to a place called "Vanity Fair" (which is the City of Man). We live in Vanity Fair.

God's people are either being persecuted or seduced. When the Church is really faithful, it is persecuted. Seduction is a call for the Church to compromise with worldliness to ease the tension of living in a hostile environment: "Lord, what's the least I can do and still be okay? I don't want to be too weird." But the message of Jesus is that separation is the order of the day. Sometimes it will be physical separation; we will do some physical things that mark us off from the world. But it will always be ideological — we will always think differently than the world thinks. Paul told the Romans, Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its mold (12:2, J. B. Phillips).

It can seem to us that everyone else is going with the flow and enjoying it. It is like a cartoon I once saw in The New Yorker. It shows two guys standing in hell with the flames leaping up. One man is talking to the other one, and he says, "You know, I always thought ‘Go with the flow,' but I never thought the flow would end up here."

It's easy to go with the flow when things are comfortable, and especially when things are luxuriant. The Rome of John's time was notorious for excessive luxury, but Rome doesn't have everything on us. I get catalogs that can only be described as ridiculous. They often have the "harlot" right on the cover. One boldly invites, "Take control of your leisure time." Inside is a blurb for a chair you can order: "Explore the outer limits of your personal serenity zone with this get-away chair." Pictured is a nice leather chair for $2,500.00. It has a vibrator in it, and a built in stereo. You can shake, rattle and roll right there in one chair. Some outdoor catalogs advertise fishing rods from $500.00 to $1000.00. And of course with a rod like that a person cannot go to K-Mart to buy a tackle box. What you want is "the world's finest tackle bag — hand crafted and appointed in latigo leather," at a price of $495.00.

Rich people who lie in leather chairs, fish and shoot, play golf and tennis (or polo, or whatever) are presented to our society as some ultimate leisure lifestyle. That is the goal of our culture today, and there is a price range for every person who will be seduced. A man can sell his soul at Walmart. The issue is pride and indulgence. Our tendency, if we are going to err on one side or the other, is always to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. That spirit is part of a system that is sitting under the judgment of God. That is John’s warning to the Church.

As this scene in Revelation concludes, the kings, the merchants and the shipmen begin to weep and wail and mourn (vs9,11,15,19). They look at what is going on, and their hearts are broken. It is good for to me to ask myself the question, and to ask you, "What makes us weep?" If we answer honestly, we may have a good clue to our values.

As I said last time, people committed to the City of Man selfishly weep over their own losses. In Jesus, we see the heart of the Son of God broken for people who are perishing. In order to save us, He Himself went up on a hill outside of the city that rejected him and gave His life. I know of no greater contrast in the world. You can get the cover of Cosmopolitan, the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, and the cover of all the catalogs that junk our mailboxes, and put them all on one side of a wall. On the other side of the wall, place a crucifix — Jesus hanging on the cross. That is our choice.

Someday, everything this world offers us will come to an end. The one thing that will remain is that which we cannot see right now with our natural eyes. Let's be people who fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2Cor. 4:18).

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Contra Babylon

The Scripture in the Office of Readings for today is from Revelation 18 — God’s judgment on Babylon. John’s Apocalypse is a breeding ground for speculation and sensationalism. Literalists focus on what is going on in Iraq right now. A bit of biblical study makes it clear that John used “Babylon” as a code name for Rome. This is all some people have needed to look for some direct renewal of the Roman Empire to be part of biblical prophecy, even accusing the Roman Catholic Church as the context for the rise of an ultimate anti-Christ.

What was John saying to the Church when he wrote this? What message has Jesus intended for His Church throughout the years the book of Revelation has been part of the Canon? These are the questions we should ask when trying to discern the “meaning” of Revelation.

Augustine gave a wonderful insight into this particular issue with his contrast of the City of God and the City of Man. Revelation 18 is about God's final judgment on the City of Man. The City of Man is symbolized by Babylon. There is an historical reason for that which is significant, but the spiritual reason for it is even more significant. Babylon was part of a fabulous culture. It was out of Babylon that much of sophisticated pagan religion developed. Babylon is almost synonymous with astrology. Babylon was Nebuchadnezzar saying, "I am the greatest man that ever lived; I am accountable to no one." Nebuchadnezzar is not the only person who has ever felt that way, but he had more wealth and power than most. He is typical of the natural inclination of the human heart, apart from the grace of God. It's an attitude which says, "the whole world rotates around me."

In John's day the City of Man was epitomized by Rome. For you and me it can be Washington, D.C. or New York. If we are foolish enough it can be our own home towns. The City of Man is any political or social organization of humankind that says in essence, "We control our own destiny. We can devise our own happiness. Who needs God?" John's concern in this — and the issue which is important for us — is the question: which "city" has our allegiance? Is it the City of Man or is it the City of God? Is it beauty as it is defined by man with his temporal nearsightedness and sensuality, or is it values that are true because we know who God is? It is helpful to remember the panoramic way the Bible shows this rebellion of the City of Man against God. What happened at Babel? God stopped it. What happened to Sodom and Gomorrah? They were wiped off the face of the earth. What happened to Babylon? As Babylon had spread terror and oppression over surrounding nations, so it received the same; Cyrus came from Persia and destroyed Babylon. In John's day, Rome was the big oligarchy — dominant and proud. But it was not forever; Rome went the way of all great human autonomy. Each of those are stories of God's justice in their own right, but on the other hand they are little parentheses that show us pictures of the bigger truth. In Revelation 18 it is not just one city. It is not just Babylon. It is not going to be only Rome. It is the whole earth — every human system that has said we will build our own place in the sun.

God's people often look around in a world gone mad as it spurns God and asks, "Where is the justice of God? Why hasn't He done something?" He has done something. He took care of Babylon. He took care of Rome. The only reason that He has not taken care of the whole situation yet is because with God, along with the strong arm of justice, there is also the strong arm of mercy. Yes, God moves in judgments. But until everything is cut off, there is the two-headed side of judgment. Here is the "coin" of judgment: Which side do you choose? Is it going to be the judgment of the wrath of God, or is it going to be the judgment that leads to repentance and mercy? That choice is presented in the book of Revelation all the way up to the end. God keeps saying, "I gave you time to repent..." But the spirit of the world will not repent.

As judgment comes on the city — on the whole world system — notice what happens. The kings of the earth (v9), the merchants (v11), and the shipmasters (v17) all start crying. John uses these three classes of people — the kings, the merchants and the shipmasters — to represent the bankruptcy of an arrogant existence which has always believed it was secure because it was living in a world of its own making. As long as the war machine and the purse strings are there, can't the world do anything it wants to do? There are people in the world who think so. That is the attitude of the City of Man. It prevails for a while, and it looks as though it is true until you see where it ends up. That is one of the messages Jesus gives to the churches in this Book of Revelation.

As God's judgment falls on all of this, the kings, the merchants and the shipmen begin to weep and wail and mourn (vs9,11,15,19). They look at what is going on, and their hearts are broken. But their hearts are not broken out of sympathy. They are not crying and weeping and mourning because of the city. They are not crying over the disaster that has fallen upon the people who have believed the glamorous lie. They aren't crying for their neighbors. They are weeping because they are being deprived of their means of financial gain and their pleasures.

There is an ultimate contrast that helps us see what is at stake. Here are these men weeping over a city because through the judgment of God their opportunity for wealth by oppression is being taken away from them, and they are crushed. The contrast to that is in Luke's Gospel. There, another man is weeping over a city. This man, though, is the Lord we say we follow. He cries, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!" (Lu 13:34).

The heart of the Son of God is broken for people who are perishing. In order to save them, He Himself went up on a hill outside of that city and gave His life. That is one way to understand what John is saying about “Babylon.” The writer to the Hebrews says people of faith desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (11:16). We have a choice to make about value systems — to embrace either the City of God or the City of Man  and the message in Revelation 18 is "not Babylon."

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Triumphal Conversions

Triumphalism is a human weakness even in the context of Christian Faith. It is too easy to gloat when something seems to give glaring confirmation that a particular facet of the Faith has been vindicated by a situation or decision in the conflict between good and bad (but how often do we think through the process that defines those terms?).

Sometimes we can sound triumphal when it is not intended — at least consciously. In my last post I tacitly admitted that I believe what Catholics do in worship is “right” (and made what should be the obvious point: why else would I have become Catholic?). That does not mean all such expressions are to be taken polemically, but the reality remains that differing Christian traditions can be quite sensitive to what appears to be either an attack on or a justification for their way of understanding and doing “church.’

I have thought of this in the context of conversion. The Easter Vigil — when converts typically enter the Church — is relatively fresh. I’ve also been reminded recently of a certain type of Protestant Fundamentalism that delights in any occurrence of a Catholic getting "saved” and leaving the Church (which can be declared with a very triumphal gloat).

The reality is that examples can be easily found of people who go both ways on this “conversion” route. Some who are “cradle Catholics” find the reality of Jesus in a personal way outside of Catholicism. Some who have been Evangelical Christians find a fullness of Christian Faith in Catholicism (which grows out of a “personal commitment to Jesus” that has defined their faith for years).

In the August/September 2008 issue of First Things (pp70–71) the late Richard John Neuhaus reported an observation by a young man in Catholic ministries at an Ivy League university: “the big difference is that [evangelical ministries] aim at the weakest Catholics while we aim the strongest evangelicals.” Neuhaus goes on to elucidate the claim “that evangelicals who are more theologically versed and religiously committed are more open to Catholicism, while Catholics who become evangelicals were, for whatever reason, alienated from Christianity.” Then he puts it bluntly: “religiously serious evangelicals are more likely to become Catholic, while religiously lapsed Catholics are more likely to become evangelicals.” A case of the former would be the “reversion” of Francis Beckwith, the former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, to the Catholic Church in 2007.

Catholics who do not know Jesus are not good representations of Catholic theology. That they tell a certain truth about Catholicism — that the Church has lost something in its catechetical process — can hardly be denied; Catholicism could benefit from Evangelicalism’s gift of initiating personal faith.

Yet it remains true that Protestants who are deeply committed to Jesus fall short of the fullness of the Church. That may sound triumphal to non-Catholics, but it is not my intent (nor was it Pope Benedict’s when he affirmed the statement from Lumen Gentium, that “This Church, constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church....”). And so Richard John Neuhaus made his case for saying “the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.”

When I hear of a “Catholic” who has been “saved” in a Baptist context I hope the person truly has found Jesus, and that the spark of life will grow into a vibrant and mature faith. And maybe, if the human negative programming is not too deep nor lasts too long, that person may grow to recognize a fullness that the Catholic Church does offer, and so may return.

Conversion is a life-long process. Christians are called to be formed into the fullness of Christ. The particular steps — even opposing “ecclesial directions” which can be marshaled by either “side”— can be good things as long as they are part of Jesus drawing His people to Himself. It is the human side of conversion — as is the triumphalism with which it is too often proclaimed.

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