Reflections: God as Artist

I have noticed that paintings are best appreciated from a distance. It is from across the room that a painting is likely to stir the heart and awaken our emotions. Often, when we step closer we see the nuances of color, the technique and the skillful use of texture. Focusing on the details, we can appreciate the genius of the artist,but the wholeness of the painting is lost. Moreover, most artists are not as interested in showcasing their technique as they are in revealing their heart and awakening the heart of others. That is the difference between an artist and a narcissist.

God is an artist.

Community: Deliberate Obedience

By Community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continuing to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature…A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion and forgiveness…Community life is by definition a life of cooperation and responsibility. Private life and public life, without the disciplines of community interest, necessarily gravitate toward competition and exploitation.
~Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community-a collection of essays. pp. 120-121.

This is where community and much of our experience with conventional church structures part company. If Berry is right in his definition of community, then most of our experience in church does not reflect it. It seems to me that our people—by that, I mean the followers of Christ—should naturally reflect the qualities that Berry mentions. Indeed, those very qualities seemed to emerge quite spontaneously in Acts chapter two. The significance is in the fact that there were no other influences on the newborn church than the gospel message and the presence of the Spirit. There were no slick programs and stewardship drives. No Evangelism Explosion, Experiencing God, or Purpose Driven Life. There was the gospel, the Spirit and the Church. Mix the three and the elements of community came forth like a fragrance.

It needs to be said that the conditions in Jerusalem at the time were unique. Many of the new believers were pilgrims on the verge of packing up and heading home. To have one’s travel plans interrupted by the Spirit of God made a change of plans imperative. Still, the first century response to the need of the moment is instructive. Hospitality was a natural answer to the plight of homeless travelers who, based on the surprising events, needed to remain to find out what came next for a follower of Jesus. Proximity to other believers was a simple necessity. Interdependence became a way of life. The result of the new church’s answer to the Holy Spirit and the new life He brought was, “day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

I heard my wife, Jody, say the other day, “Community isn’t about affection, it’s about conviction.” I think she is right. I think that buried in the soul of every believer is the understanding that we are not to live independently, but interdependently. If we listen carefully to the prompting of the Spirit, we can hear the command (note it’s a command, not an invitation or suggestion) to love one another. Commands don’t happen by accident; neither do they always happen by preference. Sometimes commands must simply be obeyed. Community is the environment that God creates among us that best supports the Great Commandment, love God, love your neighbor. Without deliberately choosing an environment in which we can do unto others as we would have them do unto us, whether we prefer to do so or not, we will never fulfill the law and the prophets which Jesus declared was the desired outcome of such conduct (John 7:12). Berry’s community, then, isn’t a pleasant image—a Kinkade painting—but a description of the life we must choose purposefully.

Polity: Bible Offends the Court

-Associated Press, March 29, 2005.

The Colorado Supreme Court…threw out the death penalty in a rape-and-murder case because jurors had studied Bible verses such as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” during deliberations…During oral arguments before the Supreme Court last month, defense attorney Kathleen Lord said the jurors had gone outside the law. “They went to the Bible to find out God’s position on capital punishment,” she said. [On a 3-2 vote, justices ordered Robert Harlan to serve life in prison without parole for kidnapping 25-year-old cocktail waitress Rhonda Maloney in 1994, raping her at gunpoint and then fatally shooting her].

My thoughts do not run on the issue of the death penalty. That is grist for a different mill. I am intrigued with the implications of a judicial review that remediates the decision of a jury on the basis that the jurors sought guidance from the Bible. To reject conclusions about law and morality that come from the same source that the founders of this nation used to organize the judicial system in the first place is colossal hypocrisy. The Colorado jurors could do nothing less than they did (the “offending” juror who brought her Bible into the jury room said as much) and the Colorado Supreme Court should have respected that.

The fact is, they didn’t. What the Colorado court did was demonstrate the emerging reality of living in the world as Western culture is shaping it: opinions that purport to come from a source external to time and space are not welcome. The Bible, regardless of its centrality to the personal life and conduct of citizens, or its fundamental contribution to government, is to be regarded as extraneous material—outside the law. Although there were two dissenting votes on the court (interestingly, by women who seem to be better able to find the relationship between belief and conduct) the conclusion of the court overruled the decision of the jury who had expressed themselves according to their conscience, having gone “to the Bible to find out God’s position on capital punishment.”

So what should we Christians do? Rail against the system? Declare an assault on the court? Man the battlements? Sound the alarm and call reinforcements to the next front in the culture wars?

I think not.

To decry the bias of the court against people of faith is to take a self-serving road. To demand our rights is to forget that we have none, only privileges purchased for us by the grace of God and the cross of Christ. Our job is not to change the system, but to walk faithfully in it—at times to be thrown into the teeth of it. We can make two equally grievous errors when faced with the rejection of society. We can change to suit the dominant culture, or we can try to change it to suit us. The first is to forget who we are; the second is to become distracted from the walk of faithfulness in an attempt to salvage a world bent on self-destruction.

What the Colorado Supreme Court thinks of a juror’s walk of faith is, in the end, irrelevant to us. The jury did its job. The court undid it. We can expect more of the same. But the reverse needs also to be true. No matter how many times the walk of obedience is challenged and rejected, we should be found walking still. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, said, “The great tragedy of modern evangelism is in calling many people to belief but few to obedience.” The best hope for change, then, is not in the objections of a few believers critical of the system, but in the faithfulness of the many who, in their obedience, refuse to be shaped by it.

What Floats Our Boat

I just ordered a recent new book by Jim Wallis–haven’t got it yet–called God’s Politics : Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. Sounds intriguing.

Here’s another quote I like from
The Sacred Romance, by Brent Curtis & John Eldredge
(Thomas Nelson, 1997) pg. 207-208

We were meant to remember together, in community. We need to tell our stories to others and to hear their stories told. We need to help each other with the interpretation of the Larger Story and our own. Our regular times of coming together to worship are intended to be time so of corporate remembrance. “This, God has done,” we say; “this, He will do.” How different Sunday mornings would be if they were marked by a rich retelling of the Sacred Romance in the context of real live. This is a far cry from the fact telling, principle listing, list keeping that characterized much of modern worship.

One of the reasons modern evangelicalism feels so thin is because it is merely modern; there is no connection with the thousands of years of saints who have gone before. Our community of memory must include not only saints from down the street, but also those from down the ages. Let us hear the stories of John and Teresa from last week, but also those of St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila … Let us draw from that “great cloud of witnesses” and learn from their journeys, so that our memory may span the story of God’s relationship with His people.

Remembering is not mere nostalgia; it is an act of survival, our way of “watching over our hearts with all diligence.”

From Subculture to Counterculture

(The third of three parts. Continued from March 22&23)

By counterculture I’m not advocating adversarial expressions of faith. The term “counter” needn’t require revolution. I agree with Jim Peterson, “Change by revolution is almost always more destructive than constructive. It is a revolt against the prevailing system.” (Church Without Walls. Navpress, 1992. p. 215). I’m not presenting a blueprint for revolt. To be a counterculture we need only to know ourselves well enough as new creatures to be able to make Kingdom choices. That is “thinking Christianly” (The Christian Mind. Servant Books, 1978. p.44), which inevitably will run against the current of culture. Peterson calls it, “change by innovation.”

Such change requires the posing of questions: What is our place in the world? What are the implications of being spirit-born and Kingdom bound? What is truly relevant to living as a Christ-follower, and how can we creatively live as one in the world without relying on world’s systems? In other words, how do we live in the world and not be of it? If we are to be a community that is truly an alternative to the world; a kinship that provides a place of faithful example where seekers may discover, in Christ, a relationship with the Father; and a team that moves fearlessly and joyously in the world carrying the good news of Jesus, then we have to get a grip on the answer to that question.

Originally, I had intended to do a publication that addressed these ideas. I was going to grapple with the practical issues of living beside, outside and beyond systems of culture. I’ve changed my mind. I think this format might be as, if not more, effective, dynamic and personal in spite of my occasional formality in expressing ideas.

I expct I’ll be sharing an unfolding journey as I consider how to deal with systems in the world. For now, I’m thinking that those systems may fall into four broad categories:

Polity. The Christ-follower and politics, government, foreign policy and law.
Economy. How are we to live relative to issues of commerce, money, resources and ownership.
Society. Living next to systems of education, entertainment, science health and others.
Community. Religious systems, interpersonal relationships, personal integrity

My intent is to clarify for myself the relationship between the community of Christ-followers and the world that we are camped in so that I can learn what it means to, “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” I think we need a better understanding of the Christian species so we can be a better version of ourselves.

An Outsider’s Code of Conduct

(Second of three parts. Continued thoughts from March 21, 2005)

The community that Jesus had presented to his followers was simple:

* You are not of this world. Don’t try to live like you are.

* Love each other. That is the mark of a disciple.

* You are not part of a hierarchy. Serve, do not dominate or set yourself apart with titles.

* Walk in unity with the Father.

Simple though it was, Jesus’ directive didn’t prove to be easy. He had effectively made outsiders of his disciples. It’s never easy for outsiders, particularly deliberate ones who act like aliens by choice. Christ-followers were going to be misunderstood and hated because they didn’t fit in chose not to fit in. Jesus warned his disciples that the world wouldn’t understand a people that consciously rejected it and its systems.

But therein lies the problem. Are we conscientiously rejecting the world? Are we familiar enough with the ways of the Kingdom that we can differentiate between it and what Paul called elementary principles- simple kid’s stuff? (Colossians 2:20). Furthermore, are we able (more importantly, willing) to set a course that intentionally diverges from the world’s systems and aims for a rendezvous with the Kingdom of God?

Not so much.

I am feeling compelled to explore practical ways for we Christ-followers to live as outsiders-strangers and aliens-in the world. My view is that the systems of the world are, at their core, idolatry, that is they are patterns of thought and practice that are human constructions under the covert supervision of the enemy of God. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not thrashing in the brush looking for demons. Wild-eyed paranoia over the works of the devil would make lousy editorial policy. I’d rather make a case for a uniquely Christian worldview that puts the world-the kosmos-in its proper place relative to the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23). I italicized the last line here because that is precisely what I believe has happened in Western evangelicalism. Our light is darkness so we are only dimly aware of the rot that has eaten away at the substance of contemporary society. We have contented ourselves to be a “subculture” borrowing liberally from the world, sanitizing what we borrow to make it look “Jesusy,” then consuming it-white-bread Christianity packed with processed sugar and flour-as though it were actually good for us. Worse, a subculture is a culture in isolation. John Fischer said,

Instead of engaging our culture in a meaningful way, we have often preferred a siege mentality, retreating into the safety of our Christian subculture. We are more comfortable fighting culture than we are being constructively involved in it. Ironically, on every front we mount highly charged rhetorical battles with a worldly culture, while at the same time, within the walls of our subculture, we try to imitate the worldly culture’s nuance. (Fearless Faith. Harvest House, 2002. p. 15)

Moreover, we have missed the need for what Blamires calls, “a Christian Mind.” (The Christian Mind. Servant Books, 1978). I think that as we press into the 21st century, such a mind will call us beyond subculture and into counterculture.

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