Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Theology of "We Built It!"

Last week I wrote a post that was meant to be a warning against Christians (and all people) protesting too strongly to the "You didn't build that" statement of President Obama. At the time I knew that the statement had become a byword with conservatives. I did not know, however, that it would become the rally cry of the GOP Convention.
Now, by criticizing the Republican party it could seem that I am somehow endorsing the Democratic party. That is not my intention at all. That said, this battle cry of the GOP deserves some special attention.
In response to the president's statement, the key phrase at the GOP Convention has been, "We built it!" The phrase is on T-shirts and posters, and the three syllable phrase is being chanted during speeches.
As much as I believe it is a mistake to take exception to someone saying to us, "You didn't build that," I believe it is a far greater mistake to proudly proclaim, "We built it!"
Seriously? We built it?
And this is a party the is claiming to have a greater correlation with the Christian message?
I can think of nothing more godless than proclaiming, "We built it!"
Think of Nebuchadnezzar: Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, "Is not this the great Babylon I have built as a royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?" (Daniel 4:29-30)
What is God's response to this pride-filled question?
Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, "This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from the people and live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like an ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes." (Daniel 4:31-32)
Nebuchadnezzar proclaimed of Babylon, "I built it!" And God responded by humbling him in profound ways until he saw his smallness and God's majesty.
Think of the Tower of Babel: Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth." (Genesis 11:4)
The people said, "We need to build something great; otherwise we will be unimportant." God responded to this by thwarting their plan and confusing their languages. No one makes himself great. That is God's job.
Perhaps the passages that speaks most directly to the phrase, "We built it" is Psalm 127:1: Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain.
Humility is central to the Christian life. We are humble because we recognize that everything we have is from God. Everything! The ability to breath, the skills to work, the intelligence to think. Everything is from God. And, most importantly, our righteousness, hope, and forgiveness is from what God has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ.
We haven't built anything. Self-sufficiency is not a Christian value. It is an idol that distracts us from true Christian attitudes.
What if someone at the GOP Convention came out and said this: "We believe that God has gifted human beings with creativity and that greater governmental regulations stifle that creativity. Therefore, we believe that America will prosper in greater ways if we allow greater freedom for that God-given and God-directed creativity to flourish." This would reflect a disagreement with the president's policies without embracing self-sufficiency.
It is no surprise that the GOP disagrees with the president's policies and plans. What is a bit surprising is that their new slogan is so flagrantly godless. It is sad. Especially for a party the claims to be in line with "Christian values."
No Christian should ever proclaim, "I/we built it."

Unless, of course, you have a desire to eat grass for seven years.

Friday, August 24, 2012

"You didn't build that" and the Gospel

President Obama  made some waves about a month ago with his now infamous "You didn't build that" statement. In case you are unaware of the statement, here it is in extended format.

"If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something--there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in road and bridges. If you've got a business--you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."

Many have taken great offense at this statement. In fact, one small business owner catered an Obama event while wearing a T-shirt that said, "Government didn't build my business, I DID."
Now, there is no doubt that many will take this post as a political exploration. That is not my intention. Let me try to be as clear as I can on the purpose of this post.
I am not terribly interested in the question, "What is the role of the government in the lives of Americans?" I certainly have my own opinions about that issue, but I don't want this post to be about whether or not the President was right in his statement, or whether or not he is right in the policies that follow this line of reasoning.

Here is the question that does interest me: "Why were we so offended by his statement?"

Let me share two reasons why the backlash against the president's statement concerns me:

1. In my own life, I see a lot of truth in his statement. 
I will speak of my own life for those of you who disagree. Let me give an example. I am a pastor and I preach sermons. If I got a lot of good feedback on a particular sermon, and then someone else said, "You didn't create that sermon," I would probably be offended. But then I would realize that they were right. First of all, the whole point of my sermons is not to come up with original thoughts, but to say what God has said. Beyond this, each of my sermons is influenced by professors like Will Varner and Tom Halstead and Paul Felix and Al Bayliss and Paul Metzger. They also draw heavily on authors like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, F.F. Bruce, Edmund Clowney, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Piper, Tim Keller, and Randy Alcorn. And I never would have been exposed to any of these people if it weren't for my parents and my youth pastor and my friends, not to mention college and seminary presidents and book publishers.
My point is that I would be exercising short-sighted pride if I were to act as if any of my success in life was due only to my individual choices. Life doesn't work that way. Our actions impact one another in negative and positive ways. We are indebted to many, and this should bring humility.
It might not be correct for someone to say of my accomplishments, "You didn't do that." But it certainly would be correct to say, "You didn't do that alone."
Again, I am not saying that this justified big government, but it does justify humility.

2. The Gospel of Jesus says, "You didn't do that."
This is the more important point to me. For those of us who are believers in Jesus Christ, we must be careful anytime we start to say, "I did that!" When we get into the habit of using this phrase about our accomplishments and successes, we are in danger of undercutting the gospel of Jesus.
In Deuteronomy 8:17-18 Moses warns the people of Israel: You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me." But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
The people are warned not to think that their success is due to their own strength and wisdom and diligence. It is all due to God.
Pause for a moment and answer this question. What is it called when we proudly proclaim, "I did that." It is called boasting. "I scored that goal," "I built that building," "I made that money." All of these are boasts. Consider what the Bible says about boasting.
Jeremiah 9:23-24 says, Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.
Our boast must not be anything that we think comes from ourselves. Our boast is how great God is. Speaking of boasting, look at what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 3:27-28: Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. We are excluded from boasting because the whole message about Jesus is not that we did some great thing by embracing him, but that he did a great work by bringing salvation for us.
Perhaps most powerful are Paul's words in Galatians 6:14: May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
Once again, don't focus on what this means about what government should or should not do. Focus on the attitude of the heart that calls out, "You didn't do this, I DID THIS!" Whether it is about starting a business or preaching a sermon or parenting your children or staying sober, we make a mistake when we place importance on getting recognition. When we find ourselves needing that credit and affirmation, an idol has crept into our hearts.
And the most frightening prospect is that this deception would cause us to believe that we deserve some credit for being Christians. True Christianity can bring nothing but humility. Embracing Jesus is an open admission that we are wrong an sinful and and lost and needy. We throw ourselves at the mercy of God and ask him to save us. And he does. HE saves us. The Christian message is not, "You can do it"; the Christian message is, "God has done it!"
As individualistic Americans we have a hard time accepting the idea that we are nothing more than recipients when it comes to our salvation. We get no credit for it and we find no boasting in it. We boast only in the one who did it for us.
Let's not forget that this is the core of our message and the core of our lives.

Let's be slow to take offense whenever anyone says to us, "You didn't do that."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Broken for You

This past Sunday we had communion at Life Bible Fellowship Church. I was near the back as the elements were passed. The structure is that the bread (broken crackers) were passed, the the cups were passed, and then we were all going to partake together.
As the elements were being a passed, a man entered the back of the church. Because he was late, he had missed the passing of the bread and was only in time for the cup. I saw that he was going to miss out on the bread, so I broke my cracker in half and handed half of it to him.
As soon as I had done it, the significance of this struck me.
"While he was eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take and eat; this is my body.'" (Matthew 26:26)
The broken body of Jesus is what we celebrate when we take the Lord's Supper. It suddenly struck me that,  in this specific instance, this fellow church member would not have been able to partake if the bread had not been broken. Then, when I ate the bread, it struck me that the bread could do me no good unless it was further broken. Each bite, each chew, broke it further so that I could consume it.
Similarly, the cup could not benefit me unless it was poured out. It spilled into my mouth when I drank it.
Jesus body and blood cannot benefit us unless his body is broken and his blood is poured out. And in all the passages that chronicle the Lord's Supper, Jesus continually says, "For you."
When I take the Lord's Supper, I find no way around the fact that I am a consumer. You have no bragging rights when you are eating and drinking. The food and liquid do all the work, all the sustaining, all the enlivening. I simply receive. It is humbling. I bring nothing to the table except the ability to consume. There is no pride in benefiting as a consumer.
And you cannot consume food and liquid unless it is broken and poured out.
When I receive Jesus, I am receiving all his benefits. Forgiveness, hope for resurrection, the presence of the Holy Spirit, reconciliation with God and with others. I receive all of these. And I never could benefit from them unless Jesus was broken and poured out. . .for me.
The Lord's Supper is a humbling celebration that parallels what it is like to receive Jesus and respond to him. It is about humbling yourself enough to be a recipient. To celebrate him and his accomplishment, and to lose yourself in that celebration.

This is his body, broken for you. This is his blood, poured out for you.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Reviews of Recent Reads

I've enjoyed reading a lot of fiction lately. Here are a few of my recent reads, along with a quick review on each of them.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Summary: Because of my love for The Great Gatsby, I have wanted to read Fitzgerald's other novels. This was good, but not up to the level of Gatsby or This Side of Paradise. The basic plot is about a married couple and their clumsy quest for marital and mental health.
What I Learned: If you replace your God-given purpose for being alive with anything else, you are in danger of mental illness.
Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5.

1984 by George Orwell
  Summary: I know, I also can't believe that I had never read this one. I had started it once, but I finally read through the whole thing a couple weeks ago. Of course, it is a great dystopian story about individual freedom being eroded by the government.
What I Learned: A correct knowledge of history is of great importance.
Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5.

The Plague by Albert Camus
Summary: Tim Keller constantly quotes this book, so I had to read it. It is the story of an ordinary town dealing with--you guessed right--a plague. It delves into the different responses on an individual and societal level. Really profound and engrossing.
What I Learned: As Christians, we face mortality with grace and with hope; not denial or defiance.
Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5.

The Confession by John Grisham
Summary: A book about a criminal secretly confessing that someone else is about to be executed for his crime. It started out okay, and then became preachy, not believable, and painfully lazy writing. I think it is possible to make a good case for being anti-death-penalty, but Grisham does not accomplish that in this book.
What I Learned: If you write some bestsellers at the beginning of your career, you write lazy, mediocre books for the rest of your career. . .and they will still be bestsellers.
Rating: 1.5 Stars out of 5.

Calico Joe by John Grisham
Summary: Unlike Grisham's other book on the list, this one was great. A novella about baseball, nostalgia, and redemption. You can read it in a day. If you grew up loving baseball, I think you will really love the story. If you like the idea of redemption, I think this story will resonate with you.
What I Learned: Our fathers have a huge impact on us, for better or worse.
Rating: 4 Stars out of 5.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Are the Ten Commandments for Today?

Along with many members at Life Bible Fellowship Church, I have been doing a Bible read-through. We are in Leviticus right now, leafing through many of God's commands. Earlier, when we went through Exodus, we encountered the Ten Commandments. Reading through this section reminded me of how frequently we associate the Ten Commandments with the core of Christian morality. We post them at our churches, we fight to keep them in front of schools and courthouses, we have our kids memorize them.
All of this leads me to a question: Are the Ten Commandments for us today? Are they binding for Christians? Are they the centerpiece of Christian morality?

The Law and the Christian
Whether or not the Ten Commandments are the centerpiece of Christian morality is up for debate in this post. But what is not up for debate is that the Ten Commandments are the centerpiece of the Mosaic Law. They come in the context of God communicating his law to Israel. Following the Ten Commandments are laws about sacrifice, priests, food, cleanliness, holy days, marriage, sexuality, property, and a number of other topics.
So, a starting question is this: Is the Mosaic Law binding?
As a whole, the Christian answer is No. The New Testament consistently reinforces this truth. Jesus fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). It was a tutor, showing us our sin and bringing us to Christ (Galatians 3:23-25).  Jesus declared all foods to be clean (Mark 7:19, Acts 9:9-15). Sacrifice and the priesthood are no more because Christ is the ultimate priest and the ultimate sacrifice (Hebrews 5:1-10, Hebrews 9-10).
And Christians, since the time of Christ, have acknowledged this reality. We don't offer sacrifices, celebrate the holy days, keep the dietary laws, and observe the cleanliness regulations. We function as if the law is fulfilled and therefore done away with.

Some, But Not All?
Some, however, say that only some of the Mosaic Law is done away with. There is the observation that some of the Old Testament laws are ceremonial, dealing with cleansing and sacrifice and religious elements. Some of the laws are civil, dealing with life in a nation, issues of property and retribution. And some of the laws are moral, dealing with how people live uprightly before God.
The reasoning is that the ceremonial laws are done away with because Christ fulfilled them, the civil laws are done away with because we are not the nation of Israel, but the moral laws are still binding upon us today.
The problem with this is that the ceremonial/civil/moral tags are not biblical tags. They reflect an observation that we have about the laws, but the Bible itself does not label the laws this way.
And, on top of this, many of the civil and ceremonial laws seem to be treated as if they are as much a moral issue as the moral laws themselves. God is equally concerned with all of them.
When the New Testament says that Jesus fulfilled the Law, and therefore Christians are free from the Law, it is saying this about the whole law.
Including the Ten Commandments.

All of the Ten Commandments?
As you take in what may be some shock waves, let me just illustrate that we already practice this. First of all, do most observant Christians today keep the Ten Commandments? You might say, "Not perfectly, but yes." This isn't true, though. We tend to treat nine of them as if they are really important, and one as if it is not. Today, almost no Christians in the world remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Someone might say, "Yes, we do. We worship on Sunday. Many Christians also intentionally do not work on Sunday out of observance of the Sabbath."
There are a couple of major problems with this argument, though.
Problem #1: Simply not going to work on Sunday is not keeping the Sabbath. If you read the Old Testament laws about the Sabbath, you will see that people were not permitted to travel, light a fire, gather sticks, or do a host of other things. While some of us might take it easy on Sunday, none of us are truly keeping the Sabbath.
Problem #2: Sunday is not the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the seventh day. Sunday is the first day. We worship on Sunday because that is the day on which Jesus rose. Saturday is the Sabbath.
And the New Testament clearly says that we are no longer bound to keep the Sabbath (Romans 14:5-6, Colossians 2:16-17). That is a part of the shadow (according to Paul in Colossians), and now the reality behind the shadow has come. The Sabbath was the picture, and now the real thing has come in Christ. We now celebrate the reality and not the shadow.

Do We Then Have No Law?
A couple of big questions come up when we start to take all of this in:
1. Are none of the Ten Commandments binding today?
2. Do Christians have no Law at all?
These questions are related, and the answer to both of them is found in what the New Testament says about the Law for believers. 
Christians don't have ten commandments; we have one. Our law is the law of love. Jesus said this in John 13:34: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." He reiterates this in Matthew 22:37-40 and John 15:12-13. John reiterates this command in 1 John 4:7-21. Paul reiterates this in Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:13-15. Christians now bind themselves to the Law of Love. Love God and, through his, love your neighbor.

Is Love Enough?
But isn't this horribly subjective? Can't people just say they're loving others through promiscuous sex, through appeasing false beliefs, and through a number of other vices? They can. But the New Testament brings clarity. You may realize that nine out of the ten commandments are consistently reiterated in the New Testament (as already stated, the Sabbath is not). Why is this? Because it is never loving to commit adultery. It is never loving to murder someone. It is never loving to steal from someone. It is never loving to bear false witness. The Bible directs us away from our puppy-dogs-and-ice-cream false definition of love to the the true definition of love, a robust sacrifice for others which is based on God's revealed truth.

So, In Conclusion
Do we keep the Ten Commandments today? Well, we keep nine of them. But the reason we keep them is not because they are the centerpiece of morality. They are not. The law of love fulfills Christian morality. The nine remaining commandments, as well as other imperatives in the New Testament, bring clarity to the law of love.
I want to suggest that we stop posting the Ten Commandments in our homes and churches. This is not because they are bad, but because this gives the impression that we are still living under law. "Believe in Jesus in order to be saved, and then do these ten things." That is not the gospel. The gospel is that the love of God, poured out through Jesus, sets us free to love others.

Perhaps we could replace our posters of the Ten Commandments with a poster of the One Commandment. Just a thought.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Chick-fil-A Blowback: Anti-Christian or Un-American?

By now, almost everyone knows the basics of the Chick-fil-A story. If you don't, here is a brief rundown.

Dan Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A, made a public statement that he, and his company, support traditional marriage. He said this:
"We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. We know that it might not be popular withe everyone, but thank the Lord we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles."
The mayor of Boston responded to this statement by threatening to keep Chick-fil-A out of his city. The mayors of Chicago and San Francisco made similar statements.
Then, this past Wednesday, millions of people ate at Chick-fil-A in a show of support and solidarity.
Others took the opportunity to berate and shame Chick-fil-A for being so "hateful." For an example, here is a video of a formerly employed CFO who sought to made a point, but only ended up making himself look foolish (and unemployed):

I find myself worked up over this, but I want to clarify the reason. Earlier this week I told my wife that the actions of the mayor of Boston do not offend me as a Christian. They offend me as an American. And perhaps that could be a helpful distinction.
As a Christian, blowback is to be expected. Jesus said that the world would oppose us and that we would face persecution. In other words, as a Christian I have no right to look at opposition from the world to say, "How dare you!" It is to be expected.
But as a citizen of the United States, I can think of almost nothing more offensive than a government official using his power to punish someone because of their exercise of free speech. It is hard for me to come up with something more un-American than that. (I know, I'm channeling Ron Swanson right now.) As an American, I can, in a sense, say, "How dare you!" That is because government officials have agreed to uphold the constitution and American values. They haven't vowed to uphold Christian values. We, as citizens, can call them back to their pledge. But we must be careful not to think that we can call them "back" to Christianity. They have not promised that. And, on top of that, Jesus never promised us that freedom from opposition was a reasonable expectation.

As much as I can get up in arms about this, it pushes me to ask where I want my primary identification to be. For those who ate at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday as a show of support, you did not make a Christian statement. You made an American statement. There is nothing wrong with this, but I think the distinction is important.
As Americans, we demand our rights by calling our government back to its pledge to us. As Christians, we don't demand our rights. . .ever. I don't mean that Christians never advocate for their rights (the Apostle Paul used his Roman citizenship to get him out of a couple of sticky situations), but simply that we don't do it on the basis of our Christianity. Our Christianity only pushes us to give up our rights for the good of others, not to become a demanding, entitled group of people. Jesus himself lost his life unjustly, and he responded not by striking back or calling out, "How dare you!" Instead he called out forgiveness and "entrusted himself to the one who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:24).
We should not respond to the Chick-fil-A fiasco by saying, "How dare they attack Christians?!" What do we expect? This should be no big surprise, and we are to respond with grace instead of antagonism.
We might, though, rightly respond by saying, "How dare you, as American officials, use your power to do something that is un-American!" That is a fine action to take. Just be honest with yourself about what battle you are picking.