Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Some Say No, Some Say Yes

Hullo all. These always take me forever, so I will attempt to be brief.

Russia-related news, we are officially under 4 weeks left. We have our Visas and had a Russian look them over to doublecheck that they are solid, and it looks like they are. So that is good. We are also meeting with a Russian student here at ACU named Dennis on Thursday afternoon, so we are looking forward to that. To prepare for apologetics and personal evangelism with our Russian friends we meet with, we are each reading a book on -- you guessed it! -- apologetics and evangelism, then we plan to share notes and tips with each other before we leave. My two books are Glimpsing the Face of God by Alister McGrath and Testimony by Thomas Long. I hope to begin McGrath's this week (almost done with Naming the Silences!). I am also hoping to read The Prophetic Imagination by Brueggemann and Simply Christian by Wright before we leave. Finally, I more or less have the Russian character system down, upper- and lower-case -- at least to write. I think I have their pronunciation, and I even was able to slowly read our invitations, so that's pretty cool. I'd really love to learn the top 25 character systems in the world for fun. And yes, I realize that's weird.

(I wonder what they are? English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, Japanese, Arabic . . . what else is there? Wouldn't that knock out like 95% of the world's population, at least in the sense that if you knew those alphabets, you could spell to almost anyone in the world? I would love to be proven ignorant in this and informed correctly. Please proceed.)

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The NBA playoffs began this weekend and are going as strong as ever! I am excited about this. I made predictions before the weekend, so here you go:

First Round
Mavs over Warriors in 5
Suns over Lakers in 6
Spurs over Nuggets in 6
Rockets over Jazz in 5
Pistons over Magic in 4
Cavs over Wizards in 4
Raptors over Nets in 7
Bulls over Heat in 7

Conference Semi-Finals
Mavs over Rockets in 7 (I would love to be wrong about this one.)
Spurs over Suns in 6 (Subjectively and objectively.)
Pistons over Bulls in 6 (I may be regretting this . . .)
Raptors over Cavs in 6 (This too?)

Conference Finals
Spurs over Mavs in 7 (Please God!)
Pistons over Raptors in 5 (Would love to see Bulls vs. Cavs for this.)

Finals
Spurs over Pistons in 6 (Go Spurs Go!!!!!!!!)

As you can see, my predictions are fair, balanced, and without emotional attachment whatsoever. For the record, if Houston beats the Mavs, I will be the happiest man alive.

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Something worth remembering: as we reinforce the necessity and importance of the spiritual disciplines in the life of the church, we should remember those for whom time is not as free as it is for others, and our language should be sensitive to this fact. For example, when reading guys like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard (and so many others), the language can sometime sound so forceful that one could get the impression that if one isn't engaging in each and every one of the practices under discussion, then one's own faith/salvation may be in jeopardy!

Let us remember that there are faithful Christians all over the world, and certainly in America, who do not have the blessing of a 9-5 job, money in the bank, bills paid, and someone (whether a spouse or a reliable daycare) to watch the kids. That may be a place worth heading toward, but no single mother with 4 kids can hear something like, "All Christians should get away on a regular basis -- don't make time an idol!" and take it seriously as affecting her life in any realistic way. Let us remember those who are doing their best to live faithfully in the midst of situations that literally do not allow for some spiritual practices -- practices which are only allowed for those of us who enjoy a comfort, security, and stability that is little known to most of the world.

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I highly recommend Heath's latest post on involving oneself with the poor. Really hits home.

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I plan to follow up on my last post soon. Until then, here are Darryl Tippens' eight Beatitudes For Our Time (from his Pilgrim Heart):

1. Happy are those who serve the world by abandoning it for a little while.
2. Happy are those who rest, for they will get their work done.
3. Happy are the playful, for they will be serious achievers.
4. Happy are the imperfectionists, for they will achieve much.
5. Happy are those who drive in the slow lane, for they will arrive in peace (or in one peace).
6. Blessed are those who build walls for they will be fully connected.
7. Happy are those who say "no," for they will be affirmed.
8. Blessed are those who know the tie that binds, for they will know the freedom of belonging.

Until next time! (P.S. Why does he change "happy" to "blessed" in numbers 6 and 8? Hm.)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Flexibility or: Lessons Learned From Youth Retreat

Hullo all! I hope everyone is surviving; I am in less-stress mode, so that is good. I have a bunch of stuff, so I'll get right into it.

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Top 12 Things Learned From The Youth Group Retreat

1. Be flexible, and be thankful.
2. Rain is cold, wind is colder. Work with it.
3. Always remember: no matter the weather, if a Kitt is present, fire is never out of the question.
4. Any old man can play hacky sack; case in point, Chris Wiginton.
5. Not just anyone can be the all-purpose take-care-of-everything go-to couple for camping needs; case in point, the heroic Bryans.
6. For discussion, church vans are always an excellent substitute for God's beautiful creation.
7. When you fall asleep even before all of the high schoolers are back to your tent, you are officially old old old old old.
8. When planning retreat, "splitting up into groups" strikes the perfect balance between "college leaders planning and getting credit" and "adult sponsors have to do all the real work."
9. If your life depended on it, don't bet against Mitchell James East in a plaster-your-face-with-peanut-butter contest.
10. If your life depended on it, always bet on Caleb Kitts' innate ability to expertly apply lipstick to another man's lips, especially if said lipstick is in Caleb's own mouth.
11. If you were to foolishly think that Luke Marrs cannot place a stack of 7 saltine crackers into his own already-full mouth, you would be dead wrong.
12. In all things, God is sovereign, faithful, present, and working. God is good!

A great weekend.

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I was going to try to link to a download of my paper on the imprecatory psalms in the life of the church, but I just failed . . . so if someone out there has advice on how to do that, please enlighten me.

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I have a list of hypothetical titles for books I should write in a Word document on my computer, and the latest is entitled Balancing the Pendulum: Theological Extremes and the Discipline of Seeing Both Sides. Garrett wants me to write this soon, and if I were actually serious about it, I really would. I would like to read that book.

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I certainly have no appropriate words to share about the Virginia Tech tragedy. Radical evil continues to exist in this fallen world, and in the face of such extreme suffering, the only thing (in my view and experience) that can sustain community and hope is the collective confession that Jesus is Lord. God is sovereign, He is alive, He is working, and He will bring justice to the world in the fulfillment of His kingdom.

All of that said, those are only words, and in no way should they replace or discourage the sincerity of the grief felt right now. May God be present in the suffering of His people, and may those intimately affected by these events feel able to be honest with the rage and despair that they must inevitably be grappling with.

(Two related articles worth reading, both interesting -- though neither of which you should necessarily agree with: Dennis Prager and Shane Claiborne.)

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Garrett and I often, I think, sound like we are fighting against an imaginary enemy when we post theological thoughts on our blogs, and I have been reflecting on this lately. I think it stems from our own conversations, usually directed at a view we deem false, and the only way we can perceive as directly addressing the issue is by taking it head on -- almost as if you, the reader, hold said view. For the record, this is never my (or his) intent, and I hope we can do better at moderating our sensitivity by stating thoughts positively instead of against the so-obviously-wrong ideology.

In that spirit, I would like to share something I have been extremely bothered by lately, something I've noticed to be quite widespread. (Having been raised in a household that didn't really see the need to poke holes in everybody else's "wrong" perspectives, I continue to observe and learn well-known attitudes and views about which I was clueless growing up. I say this to my parents' credit.) I am referring to the tendency of Christians to see Jesus' life and death not as the fundamental model for how we are to live our lives, but as some sort of one-of-a-kind super-religious fulfillment of what God demanded as necessary to forgive our sins. If that sounds confusing, allow me to elaborate.

Jesus was a Jew who lived under the oppression of one of the most powerful empires to ever exist on the earth. He was also poor and homeless. When His ministry began to pick up, much of the fervor around Him (especially when He "triumphally" entered Jerusalem) was due to the spirit of revolution in the air. Israel -- the very people of God! -- were oppressed, even after having returned from exile, and surely God would finally, decisively deliver them from the accursed Gentile oppressors! The Zealots were the most radical example of this: they were fundamentalists (not dissimilar to modern-day terrorists) ready to do anything and everything to liberate Zion from the foreign occupiers. Let us remember that at least one (if not more) of Jesus' disicples was a Zealot.

So when this famed prophet starts to gain some popularity, the Jews are ready for God to finally act! And hey, it actually seemed like this guy was legit. Not only was He healing people, helping people, teaching people, etc. -- He was angering the religious elite, which was always a sign of the true prophets, and was a man of the people! When He cleared the temple, all of Jerusalem was ready for Jesus to head right next door to the evil Romans who were oppressing God's people -- just like the Egyptians! -- and kick them out, too. Now was the time when God would destroy the idol-worshipping pagans, now was the time when God would liberate His people, now was the time when God would bring His reign fully and intimately to the earth and to His people!

And what happens? Jesus doesn't go next door. Jesus doesn't pick up a sword. Jesus eats a final meal with his closest friends, weeps and bleeds in patient anticipation, offers Himself freely to the authorities, submits Himself completley to the great evil to be exerted against Him, refuses to call down God's power against such evil, and anticlimactically is executed as a common criminal by the religious elite and the military powers of the empire. Not only is He executed without a fight, Jesus is hung on a cross as a sign of absolute shame and abject weakness. Everybody sees, and everybody knows the truth: this guy wasn't the real thing. God wasn't with Him. Nothing's changing. He didn't even put up a fight, and He really could have accomplished something. Now all is lost.

Okay, so we know the rest of the story at this point. God vindicates the way of Jesus, raises Him from the dead, and not only that, but lifts Him up to sit at His right hand -- this Jesus is not only a crucified and risen Messiah, this Jesus is Lord of the universe: very God Himself, embodied and human yet transcendant and divine. This part is for another day, and obviously of no less importance, but my focus is Jesus' life leading to the cross.

It is hard for me to fully articulate the disturbing attitude that I have observed, partly because it is difficult for me to understand and partly because I am not sure those who hold it do so knowingly. But allow me to try.

One way to look at the life and death of Jesus -- and in my view, the way of the New Testament writers and the early church -- is that it is normative for all followers of Jesus. That is, Jesus' life did not exist solely for the sake of fulfilling some sort of abstract "need for atonement," but that embodied in Jesus' very existence and way of life is the the new way of life for all humans seeking to be truly human. I assume this way of life to be what all Christians (knowingly or not) sign up for in baptism and confession of Jesus as Lord. In a nutshell, this "Way" -- incidentally the first name given to Christians in the New Testament -- turns everything on its head. We love instead of hate, serve instead of kill, submit instead of overpower, give instead of take, suffer instead of inflict. Everything that the fallen world does instinctively, followers of Jesus -- by following the radical and paradoxical way of Jesus -- do, more or less, the exact opposite.

And, if you are paying attention, Jesus' way of life ended in a particular way and at a particular place: the cross. Thus, if we see Jesus' life as normative and paradigmatic for all of His followers, then it follows necessarily that the way in which Jesus' life ended must be normative and inherent for all Christians as well. Thus we see that Jesus did not die on a cross "merely" to "save us from our sins," but also as the necessary and expected end to a life lived in complete faithfulness to the true way of God.

Let me reiterate that this perspective in no way diminishes what Jesus did on the cross for us: it is 100% biblical and true and necessary that Jesus' blood shed on the cross offers us redemption and forgiveness from sins.

However, the attitude with which I have been coming into contact is that the life and death of Jesus is merely for the sake of "dying for our sins." The very idea that we are expected to follow the way of Jesus -- the fullest representation of which is the cross -- is ludicrous from this perspective. Jesus was God in the flesh -- He was perfect! How could we ever be expected to sell everything we have, hang out with prostitutes and homeless and sick people, and be killed for the way we live in opposition to the powers that govern the world? Jesus did that as a religious device to get us off the hook, not as an example for us to follow!

That is what I have been coming into contact with lately. I don't mean to sound sarcastic or irreverent; I feel like that description is fairly honest in its representation, at least according to the ambassadors of the attitude with whom I have come into contact. Please forgive me if I sound like I'm presenting a straw man to beat up on.

Regardless of the quality of my presentation, I find that attitude to be decidedly false, unbiblical, counterintuitive, and wholly destructive to what Christians are called to be in the world. We are called to witness to a crucified Messiah, who offered a window into how God would have us live if only we would take Him up on it. The church is supposed to embody in its very existence and community life this standard of living that reveals to the world God's offer of true life, in which we can partake even now! This is why love is at the center. Love for God and neighbor defines everything, for love is the ultimate paradox. Love accomplishes nothing, yet through love God changes the world. It makes no sense to give in to death on a cross; yet Jesus did, and we are called to the same path. We are called to suffer and even to die, even if we don't think it will accomplish anything; contrary to popular belief, it is not our job to alter the course of history, but to live faithfully by following Jesus. And the way in which we follow Jesus is by picking up our cross and walking the long road to Golgotha.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Stressful End

Hullo all. I don't have much to offer today, again, but I would like to request your prayers (as Heath already has). He and I are planning (and enacting...) the youth group retreat for Round Rock this weekend, and while we have prayed and planned ourselves, we covet your own prayers for the weekend. Amidst all of the stress with school, planning a wedding, preparing for Russia, applying to graduate schools -- and on and on -- things like this can either be a blessing or a curse.

We are hoping for the former.

So pray that we would trust God, that we would invite the Holy Spirit into the process, that we would be Christ-centered, that we would give up our worries and stress to the One who is sovereign over all, and that the students would receive rest, fellowship, and spiritual renewal this weekend. And also, that our plans don't blow up in our faces.

(Oh, and weather, too. For example, no thunderstorms or sub-40 degree weather would be nice. Camping . . . on the lake.)

So! Please keep us in your prayers.

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In other news, I'm in the process of learning the Russian character system (which is really the Cyrillic alphabet). I can write all of the letters -- upper- and lower-case! -- and pronounce almost all of them. I could slowly sound out the Russian words on our official invitations. For the record, Heath's name in Russian sounds like "Kheese." That, combined with the Basoga's pronunciation of "Eef," pretty much guarantees a lifetime of goofy nicknames for Heath as he gives himself to a lifetime of missions. I like that.

Also, I made the decision to graduate in December, although I will still walk with my class (and Katelin) next May. I'll begin grad school here for the Spring, then either stay or transfer elsewhere (most likely the latter).

Lastly, Ben Witherington's blog post yesterday was an excellent commentary on the difficult balance between openness in the church versus community protection. Well worth reading.

Hope everyone has a great weekend! Be cheering for the Spurs over the Mavs this Sunday. I know I will.

Monday, April 09, 2007

One Version of the Lion and the Lamb

I plan on posting sizeably within the next couple days -- and hopefully more regularly after the retreat -- but I thought I'd post this article by Brian McLaren. Highly recommended.