Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Church: An Alternative City-State-Nation #KingdomDreams

When you think of “church” what comes to mind? In the U.S. people often think of a voluntary private association. It is like other “clubs” people join. 
How we think of church impacts creating an alternative kingdom community. If the church is mainly a private association or club which I join I will struggle to respond to the call to the kind of deep commitment that is needed to form an alternative community. 
What shall we say about the church?

  1. The church is a covenant community. God makes us part of this community(Cf. Infant baptism). In other words God calls a church to himself. So the church is not random individuals. God brings it together.
  2. The church, says John Calvin, is our mother. The church nurtures us in the faith and outside of the church there is a lack of proper growth in faith. The church especially forms us through our hearing and responding to God’s word proclaimed and the sacraments.
  3. The church is an alternative city-state that calls forth our first allegiance. Our first allegiance is to what Augustine called “the city of God”. We are first and foremost citizens of the city of God. Our citizenship in that city is reflected in our being a member of the church. As this alternative city:
    1. The church doesn’t reflect the culture, rather it acts as a window through which people can see the truth about the culture/nation/world they live in.
    2. The church as the true city-state both affirms and confronts all other nations as it brings God’s word to bear.
    3. The church shows an alternative way of life that reaches across nations and states because it is worldwide.
    4. The church proclaims, ‘I pledge allegiance to the Lamb and the kingdom for which he stands.”

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Kingdom Dreams

The Christian faith has many unique ideas and thoughts. One unique part of the Christian faith is the the trinity. God is one and yet three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This understanding of God central to the Christian faith (see Athanasian Creed).

Building an alternative alternative kingdom community that shows His kingdom dream to the world leads me back to the trinity. We must fully own the trinity to build an alternative kingdom community. 

God the Father

To build a kingdom community we must believe (see John Calvin Institutes 1.2.1) that all good things come to us from God—he is fountain of all good. We also need to believe that what God offers as a kingdom life is the best life possible. This belief provides the foundation for creating an alternative community that lives God’s way in the world. It also provides the foundation for seeing the brokenness of other kingdoms and a willingness to confront those kingdoms.

Jesus the Messiah

To build a kingdom community we need a King. We need to celebrate that at the heart of the good news is that Jesus has come as king and now reigns as king at the right hand of God. As King of kings we follow his kingship over all other lords and kings of this world.

Holy Spirit

The power of the Spirit is to awaken us to the truth. The Spirit does this through helping us see the truth in God’s word. The Spirit also critically does this by awakening us to the idolatries of our hearts and our communities. The truth is we can only deal with these idolatries if we see that God is the source of all good and if we know that Jesus is Lord and not some other.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Kingdom Dreams

Our friend Rays owns a creative and beautiful clothing store called Kingdom Dreams. The idea behind the name is to display the beauty and creativity of the kingdom through clothing. This summer I am borrowing Ray’s name for my Sabbatical blog. My aim is to show how God calls us to live as an alternative kingdom community so showing His kingdom dream to the world.
As I begin Kingdom Dreams I’m discovering that there are four essentials to building a true alternative kingdom community.
  1. God’s honor and glory are at the center. This is prior to all other things—even our own salvation. It is hard—perhaps impossible—to build a kingdom community that consists of hardened individualists.
  2. Kingdom practices are essential. The day to day practices of our lives form us. We all have daily practices but the truth is they are often hidden from us. Our daily practices most often are the practices of the American way of life that we do on autopilot. The kingdom has practices that we need to know and make into our daily rhythm as a community if we are going live as an alternative kingdom community.
  3. Theology matters. The lens through which we see the world and live out the practices matters. Our theology shapes how we read the scriptures, see Jesus, see community and even what practices we consider essential.
  4. The times they are a changin’. The way we think and act out being an alternative kingdom community is shifting not only because it’s 2019, but because Igen sees the world differently than millennials, than Gen X, than boomers etc. To truly be an alternative kingdom community we need to see these differences and learn how to live in the midst of them. 

More later... 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Sacrificing our Children to Molech

“‘Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him. I myself will set my face against him and will cut him off from his people; for by sacrificing his children to Molek, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. If the members of the community close their eyes when that man sacrifices one of his children to Molek and if they fail to put him to death, I myself will set my face against him and his family and will cut them off from their people together with all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molek.” (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2–5 NIV11)

“As gunshots echoed through the high school, a geography teacher, Scott Beigel, 35, paused to usher stragglers into his classroom before locking the door, only to be shot and killed himself as the shooter strode by.”  From the New York Times
We are wringing our hands again this week, offering thoughts and prayers to families, to those at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and wondering what do we do next. We’ve lived with a long line of school shootings from Columbine to today, but we’ve made no progress in stemming the tide or the sorrow,.
Facebook and Twitter, of course, have begun the usual battle of words over gun control with people yelling at each other but we’ve yelled before and it has gotten us no where. I’m reminded of the AA saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.” So we go down the same road some defending the right to have our guns declaring the problem is not guns but individuals who ______________ (you can fill in the blank) and others saying that white people may be the problem to an extent that until we get guns off the street and out of the hands of people we’re just going to see this over and over again.
Reflecting on this my mind went back to the words from Leviticus that our congregation read a few weeks ago as part of #explorethestory. God’s command that the people of Israel not sacrifice their children to Molech. Such sacrificing children to an idol was an abomination to the LORD (Yahweh). 
From a position of faith one of the most important things for people of faith to do as we work forward is to discern the idols and idolatry that has captivated us. Idols that sadly we are more concerned about worshipping than we are about keeping our kids out of its hands. 
Idols are those things that trust in and serve alongside of or in the place of God. Idolatry is when we worship and serve forces in creation giving them power and authority over us — when we should actually have power and authority over them. For instance, one idol that can capture us is a longing for acceptance and approval. We believe that we can’t be happy if we don’t have approval of a certain person, a certain group etc. We give that idol power over us, we serve it and it begins to eat us up as we do whatever we can to gain that approval from spending too much money to get approval, to doing what we ought not to do, to harming others and so on it goes. And over time we find that we have become enslaved to this idol.
The Psalmist writes,
“Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him.
But their idols are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see. 
They have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but cannot smell. 
They have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but cannot walk,
nor can they utter a sound with their throats. 
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.” (Psalms 115:3–8 NIV11)
One of the challenges of the idols of our day is that we no longer recognize our idols. Recognizing idols was so much simpler back in biblical days when you could see an actual image, but now as N.T. Wright points out, 
….[The] ancient and well-known gods have not gone away, have not been banished upstairs, but are present and powerful—all the more so for being unrecognized. In what sense are they divine? The ancients would have no trouble answering that. First, those who worship gods become like them; their characters are formed as they imitate the object of worship and imbibe its inner essence. Second, worshipping them demands sacrifices, and those sacrifices are often human. You hardly need me to spell out the point. How many million children, born or indeed unborn, have been sacrificed on the altar of Aphrodite, denied a secure upbringing because the demands of erotic desire keep one or both parents on the move? How many million lives have been blighted by money, whether by not having it or, worse, by having too much of it?
We become like our idols and our idols demand sacrifices—maybe even the sacrifices of our children. 
So what are the idols that we as a Christian community need to expose and fight in ourselves and in our culture. Idols that so own us that decade to decade we put our kids in the hands of Molech? Just asking that question brings a bunch of instant answers —often depending on where you are on the political spectrum and what you think about gun control. But I believe for the Christian community to unearth idols is actually hard and rigorous work that typically pushes back on right and left demanding a third way. This third way reveals a path that will possibly be disliked by both the right and the left—but which might keep our kids out of the hands of Molech.
How do we uncover these idols of our time? We can start with idols that have typically captured every culture: Mammon, Violence, and Sex, asking how these have captured our society so that we are willing to sacrifice our kids in Molech’s arms. But we also need to go beyond these “typical idols” and look how we’ve been captured by the “isms” of our day. Perhaps especially an individualism that makes it possible for us to refuse to consider the common good over our own good (certainly shooters at some level hold their own good or the good of their group above the common good). 
Whatever pathway we take we will not finally find a way to speak wholly as a Christian community and with a unique voice as a Christian community until we are willing to expose the idols—both our own and those of the culture. Exposing the idols is the first step to sending those idols into hiding and bringing victory over them. 
The challenge here is that this kind of discerning and exposing idols is a long slog and a painful one for it is our own idols that we are exposing, our own willingness to give our children to Molech. We want fast and easy solutions: “Gun Control”; “Arm Teachers”; “Increase Security in our Schools”. While we should not ignore short term fixes, what we need is longterm solutions. Essential to those solutions is a Christian community that is willing to identify our idols, own our idols and do the hard work of repenting of our idols (both as Christians and as a Nation). Repenting as the Heidelberg Catechism remind us is not just saying were sorry, it is turning away from our sin and living in a new way.

As a Christian community we’ve had more than 20 years to go after this different path, but it seems that like others we’d rather shout at each other than come together to do the hard and honest work of identifying the idols, of identifying our Molech. What difference would it make if we stopped shouting and identified Molech, would the nation take notice, would a new conversation begin, and would we be able to stop wringing our hands every few months and offering our thoughts and prayers?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Thoughts, Prayers, Guns and How We See

When mass shootings became part of our culture a few years ago (remember, for those of you a bit older, the shock of Columbine?) it was typically a few days or a week until the battles about gun control started—now it is at best few hours until everyone starts pulling out their statistics and anecdotes and saying “hooray for our side” and “we are more righteous than you”.

Surveying all of this in the news, on Facebook and Twitter I was struck by something that philosopher Charles Taylor talks about. He talks about something called “Social Imaginaries”. A social imaginary is the lens or story that a person sees the world through. That lens or story shapes everything. For instance, think about marriage. Just think about it. As soon as you think about it you reveal the story or social imaginary through which you see the world. For most people in our culture marriage is about love, it is filled with romance, and it is about the two people who are in the marriage and perhaps the children when they come along. When we read the Bible we are tempted to put that picture of marriage into the Bible. But that is not the story that people in Ancient Near East would recognize. For them marriage was about strengthening two families, building ties or even settling a dispute through binding two clans together. Love and romance might show up, but that’s not the first thing marriage would be for them.

All of us have our social imaginaries, the story or lens we look at the world through. That story is so imbedded in our soul that we can’t get out of the story to see through the eyes of another story or perhaps more to the point we think other stories are hopelessly naive or uncaring or stupid or…  If our story is one of the free market we denigrate those who cry out for government solutions. If we are someone who doesn’t trust big business the present sense that the solution for all of the worlds problems from troubles in schools to churches to non profits is to run them like a business seems absurd, but those living the story of trusting business think this is the greatest thing ever. And when it comes to guns those who live out of the story of “the right to bear arms” and the picture of a “good man with a gun” who stops the bad man with a gun is the right story. On the other hand, those who want gun control argue that “the right to bear arms” was never supposed to lead to where we are and that those who want to bear arms are more concerned about their guns than they are about lives lost. 

The trouble with social imaginaries is when they get in us we can’t seem to hear the voices of others. The other trouble with social imaginaries is we often don’t even recognize that we are operating within them. Charles Taylor calls this reality “unthoughts”. An unthought is something we assume to be true, it is a belief that we hold to as a culture. We hear these unthoughts in saying or slogans like, “Question Authority”,  “the government can’t be trusted”,  “human beings are good”, “choice is a good thing”, or “everyone should be free”. An author commenting on Taylor writes, 

"These ideas do indeed have deep resonance in our culture, but Taylor shows why, if any of them are given sustained reflection, we must conclude that “it is absurd to adopt any of these . . . propositions as universal truths. . . . To have any kind of livable society some choices have to be restricted, some authorities have to be respected, and some individual responsibility has to be assumed.”

What are the unthoughts, things we just assume are true because the slogans and saying have gotten deep enough into our lives? One way of discerning unthoughts by the way is to ask if another culture would see these things as true as well (back to thinking about marriage again) or if we look back in history would people assume these ideas are true. 

Our unthoughts that flow from our social imaginaries are just the way we think, just the way we see the world (think about marriage again), and because of that there is little room for putting aside our story, our imaginary to come together with others to find solutions to whatever ails our society and world. 

Into this struggle and into our sometimes unwillingness to uncover or challenge our social imaginaries comes another way of seeing the world that both gives a lens through which to see in a new way and opens the door to working with others to heal what ails our society and world. We can call this the social imaginary of the Bible.

One of the most important parts of this social imaginary that people actually love to hate is something that the 16th century reformers called, Total Depravity. Total Depravity tells the story that everything and everyone has been touched by and twisted by sin. It doesn’t say that every person or everything is as bad as she/he/it could be, rather it says everything has gotten crooked and twisted by sin. This is a critical reality that impacts whatever social imaginary we are living out (think red state, blue state imaginaries or free market, socialism imaginaries) because it tells us that while there are good things in our imaginary something in our imaginary is crooked and twisted as well. Recognizing that things are crooked and twisted in my imaginary allows me to be open to speaking with others who come from a different point of view, who imagine healing the world has to be done in a different way. 

By the way one helpful process for uncovering both the goodness and the crookedness of your social imaginary goes like this

1.  What does the story (the social imaginary) I live by teach about what it means to be a person who lives the good life? How does that compare with what God teaches in the scriptures?
2.  What can I agree with in this story that helps me live as a passionate follower of Jesus?
3.  What do I have to resist in this story because it takes me away from being a part of a vibrant community of passionate followers of Jesus?
4.  What are the “unthoughts” in this story I live by?

Another huge part of the social imaginary of the Bible is knowing that God is on a mission to restore and redeem his world and people in it. As we mentioned yesterday this is the vision of Shalom.

Shalom: where God is our God and we are his people and he dwells with us, where God is King and his son is Lord, a world where the Lamb is our light, where swords are beaten into plowshares, where abundance is enjoyed by all, where our hurts are healed and the crooked is made straight, where people from every tribe and tongue and nation sing the same songs of praise, where justice rolls down like the waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.

When we look at the world we see that God is on a mission to restore and redeem and that his people are called to join in the mission of God. The Christian Reformed Church’s “Our World Belongs to God” speaks of the mission this way, 

       41. Joining the mission of God, the church is sent 
       with the gospel of the kingdom
       to call everyone to know and follow Christ and to proclaim to all
       the assurance that in the name of Jesus there is forgiveness of sin
       and new life for all who repent and believe. The Spirit calls all members
       to embrace God’s mission
       in their neighborhoods
       and in the world:
       to feed the hungry,
       bring water to the thirsty,
       welcome the stranger,
       clothe the naked,
       care for the sick,
       and free the prisoner.
      We repent of leaving this work to a few,
      for this mission is central to our being. 

Joining in this mission his people know that while God’s mission is never crooked, they are, and so they carry out that mission with humility and in the way of the cross, namely, as those who practice self-giving love as the way to overcome evil.

As followers of Jesus we want to do our best to use the imaginary of the Bible in dealing with the world and with those we disagree with. We want to recognize the total depravity that impacts us, we want to see that we are called by God to be on his mission to restore and redeem all things, and we want to know that even on this mission we need to live as people of humility—who live the way of the cross by carrying out God’s mission in self-giving love. 

But we also own that this this is our first and foremost social imaginary. All other ways we see the world are judged by and filtered by this Biblical imaginary. The mission of God, the reign of Christ over all, and the way of the cross outshines and overrules all else: national imaginaries, social imaginaries, local imaginaries, family, right wing, left wing… 

Which today brings us back to guns and gun control. As the Twitter wars continue, as Facebook calls out, “read my post, because my side is right” how do we, who live out the social imaginary of the Bible, begin to be the prophetic voice in our culture that calls out both the goodness and the crookedness of different perspectives? How do we become the voice of self-giving love? How do we become the voice that sets aside our own social imaginaries for the imaginary of the Bible and so opens a door to solutions?

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Guns, Thoughts and Prayers

It has happened again. A person has stepped in and taken lives shooting almost 50 people and killing 26. Sadly it is a headline we know we will see again and again in the coming months and years. We will see them again again and again because at some level we’ve come to a place in our society where we are both horrified by these events and unwilling to come together as a society to find actual ways to stop them or at least reduce the number of times we have to grieve.
Part of the divide we see comes in the call for “thoughts and prayers” for those closest to these horrific mass shootings. As the calls go out again for “thoughts and prayers” those who have been demanding gun control have begun a frustrated push back against those who are willing to pray but not willing to pursue gun control. The sense one gets is “Stop that silly praying and actually do something to end the horror.”
I’ve been reflecting on that perspective for a few days and I have to wonder if the problem isn’t quite the opposite. The problem is not that we’ve been praying too much and doing to little, the problem is we’ve praying and lamenting too little.
Deep in the faith of God’s people is the prayer of lament. A prayer of lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow lifted up to God. In the Psalms the Psalms of Lament rival the Psalm of Praise. For instance Psalm 5 begins this way, 
“Listen to my words, LORD,
consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray. 
In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you 
and wait expectantly.” (Psalms 5:1–3 NIV11)
Psalms of Lament are powerful because in them the Psalmists turn their attention to God who is both the mighty King and their loving Father—it is in him they find their hope. In the lament they identify the crisis at hand, they protest to God about it, and often protest to others and to themselves about it, then they ask God to act even as the Psalmist looks for a solution to the problem and finally the Psalmist usually ends up praising God.
The power of lament in the face of the horrors of mass shootings is that lament forces us to look to God first, the mighty king of the world and our loving Father. We look to him to act in this world understanding that prayer is one of the ways that God gets his work done in the world. This biblical reality is one place where those who denigrate thoughts and prayers get it wrong, prayer is not passive, prayer rightly done in the light of the horrors of a mass shooting is a passionate expression of grief, it is a calling, begging, crying out to God both on behalf of those who have been impacted and for God to stop such things in the future—trusting that the almighty King of the universe can actually do something.
The power of lament in the face of the horrors of mass shootings is also that lament forces us to look at the situation—the people who are deeply grieving, a nation that sees to be unwilling to take on such horrors and most uncomfortably, lament faces us down and asks, “What will you do with all these tears—both yours and others?” Lament never leaves us where we started. Lament reshapes and reforms our hearts and our priorities—for we do not want to weep like this again. 
The power of lament also comes in the vision of what God longs for in his world. The only reason we can truly lament is because we have a deep sense that this is not the way it’s supposed to be. A lone gunman shooting from a hotel or inside a church is not the way things are supposed to be. Lament surfaces the reality that and at the same time trains our hearts and minds on the way things are supposed to be. That this is supposed to be a world of shalom. As one person writes:
Shalom: where God is our God and we are his people and he dwells with us, where God is king and his son is Lord, a world where the Lamb is our light, where swords are beaten into plowshares, where abundance is enjoyed by all, where our hurts are healed and the crooked is made straight, where people from every tribe and tongue and nation sing the same songs of praise, where justice rolls down like the waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.
The difficultly of lament in our culture is at least twofold. One is the news cycle. It is just a few days since the shootings in Texas but already we are on to other things, other news stories (and Las Vegas—well that was so long ago). Lamenting means staying in place, it means letting the sorrow burrow deep into our bones—we are not good at that in a world of 24 hour news cycles. The other is that we don’t like to lament. We don’t like to do it on our own, we don’t like to do it in our small group, and certainly we are not looking for it in a worship service. We want to be lifted up, encouraged, not pulled down into lament. And yet it is in the depths of lament that we find the Psalmist being lifted up into the presence of God.
So my sense is that in the face of the horrors of Las Vegas and Texas and whatever comes next, the problem is not to little prayer, it is not enough prayers of lament. Lament is the beginning of healing and the beginning of find ways to set the crooked straight. And if we discover that we have to lament over and over again, it is the uncomfortable nudge asking, “Why are we still crying, why has there been no change since last you wept?”

Where do we start becoming those who pray deep prayers of lament that cry out to God for his power and move us to live out God’s vision of shalom?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Books 2016 Part 4

Last, but not least... 

Culture, Philosophy and History

    Rob Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson take us into the world of Zombies and Cylons to understand the world that Charles Taylor lays out in A Secular Age. While the book deals with popular culture it also carries some true heft. A bit of heavy lifting is necessary to digest this one—but worth it!

You are what you Love

   Jamie Smith’s book that points out that we become what we love. While the book is a wonderful look into our lives and the loves that capture us what is most surprising is his solution: right worship week by week with God’s people.

The Half has Never been Told

    This powerful and disturbing book takes us into the history of slavery in the deep south. The author builds his story through the metaphor of a body and shows how slavery is the foundation on which modern prosperity is built.

Between the World and Me 

    Ta-Nehisi Coates takes us on a journey that intertwines the thoughts of body in The Half has Never been Told.  Coates book is written according to the theme of speaking to his son about growing up in America as an African American. It is  power and painful book to read and digest.

Kingdom Calling

   A great book on how to live a those who rejoice the city through our work.

The Attention Merchants

    A painful look at how we are manipulated by advertising. A surprising historical study that show that what we experience today has been around less than 100 years.


    If you ever wonder what life was like in the Roman Empire around Jesus’ day and why his way was so revolutionary this is the book. Long, detailed and ultimately disturbing it traces the Roman Emperors over 100 years—up to the death of Nero.  It doesn’t mention Jesus, but if you know that story it stands in marked contrast.

Punished by Rewards

    Alfie Kohn point out how the rewards we give out often do more harm than good. A great read for teachers and parents.

The Horrors we Bless

    This book is one of the most disturbing on the list. The author takes us into the horrors and injustices that we bless as nations and peoples. The struggle is to to think of the alternatives in a broken world.

The Attention Merchants

    A painful look at how we are manipulated by advertising. A surprising historical study that show that what we experience today has been around less than 100 years.