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Monthly Archives: July 2010

Dissipation

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Jesus gave a clear and succinct mission to his followers before he left: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” It is not hard to understand. It is hard to do.

In fact, it is so hard to do that I basically don’t do it.

Don’t get me wrong. I approve of the mission. I am willing to support those who engage in fulfilling it. I give to organizations that preach the gospel and make disciples. I just don’t do much myself. When I consider what I might do, I feel defeated before I start.

Many years ago when I was a senior in high school, one of the local churches decided to sponsor a door-to-door campaign to reach local neighborhoods with the gospel of Jesus. I went along partly because there was a girl I liked who was participating. Unfortunately, I didn’t get paired with her. I was sent out with her sister instead. We started canvassing houses. Most people were simply not home. Others clearly mistook us for Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses and refused to open their doors. After a while, we came to a house where several young men were lounging on the porch and steps drinking and smoking. I hung back, thinking that these men were not likely to want to hear about Jesus, but my companion walked right up to them and invited them to church. She was an attractive young woman, so they were immediately attentive. Their attentions quickly became crude, but my companion was undaunted. She politely ignored their comments and pressed on, asking them where they would spend eternity. They were plainly drunk and just as plainly entertained. They strung us along as long as they could, and I was only too glad when we finally left.

“That was a waste of time,” I said.

“No,” said my companion. “Who knows what seeds we may have planted.”

“But they were drunk,” I objected.

“Tomorrow they may be sober,” she retorted. “They may think about what we said and be drawn to God.”

It was very charitable of her to say “we” since I hadn’t opened my mouth the whole time. I had been silently praying, but not for her hearers. I had been praying that she would shut up so we could leave. I didn’t think—and still don’t—that we had any positive impact at all. All we had done was to reinforce cultural stereotypes about evangelical Christians. Great.

I love the gospel. I have seen people transformed by God’s power, and I have experienced it myself. I am not ashamed of the gospel. It really is the power of God for the rescue of everyone who believes. But I don’t like doing things that are demonstrably ineffective. I can’t imagine that “make disciples of all nations” means employing some of the silly methods evangelical churches have used over the past several decades in an attempt to reach the surrounding culture with the message of God’s enduring love.

I confess. I gave up. I was wrong to do so, and the thought that I ought to do more has nagged me ever since.

Recently I’ve been thinking about it more. Like most Americans, I spend a lot of time being entertained and little time thinking deeply about the state of the world, the direction its headed, and what I might be able to do about it. Sometimes it seems that our whole world is geared toward convenience. People won’t recycle unless it’s convenient. People won’t volunteer unless it’s convenient. People won’t oppose injustice unless it’s convenient. We regard those who inconvenience themselves as extraordinary. We regard zeal with suspicion. We live in a world where half-hearted efforts garner praise and whole-hearted efforts provoke envy, where ease is the only happiness and hardship the only misery.

I am by nature an optimist. I don’t do dismal, even when I’m out of a job and the economy is still in the basement. I think the world is rife with God’s blessing. Every living thing seeks opportunities to grow and develop. Many of us, however, seem content with little. We content ourselves with movies and music and food and drink when there are things we could do to change people’s lives for the better. I don’t see around me the same ambition that drove pioneers to break up the sod on the Minnesota prairie or caused fur traders to endure extraordinary hardships to feed the demand for beaver hats. Who am I to complain? I don’t see that kind of zeal in myself.

So what do I want? I hardly know. I want zeal with knowledge. I want to spread the good news of God’s kingdom in ways that work.

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No More ‘C’ At The ‘Y’

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The New York Times carried a story this morning that the YMCA is changing its name formally to just the Y. While the article cites several good reasons for doing so, I can’t help feeling a little sadness at seeing yet another venerable institution purge itself of references to its Christian beginnings. Founded in 1844 by George Williams as “a refuge of Bible study and prayer for young men seeking escape from the hazards of life on the streets,” the YMCA came to the United States in 1851 and now serves thousands of men and women every year. But along the way it has lost its spiritual purpose and become a health and fitness club.

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Love and Fear II

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After the last post on Love and Fear, I got several comments on my Facebook page. One from my niece, Raine,  raised some interesting questions. She wrote:

What a lot of facets of love and fear!

Chad says that God only desires obedience because obedience is the end-result of love (at least, I think that’s what he’s saying). This doesn’t make sense to me. At all. It seems to me that by saying that he is saying that the things that God requires of us, the things that we are to obey are then also beside the point. That those things don’t exist for their own sake, because they are right and wrong, and God is a righteous and just God. But that those things then are only a way of proving love.

Chad also says, “However, this is my experience of obedience that is gained by fear: it is half-assed. I see it all the time in the soldiers under me. If they are given a task they do not wish to complete, they may not moan or gripe. Instead they do the minimum. They fulfill the letter and only the letter of the orders they are given. As I understand it, Jesus urged us to look to the spirit of the law and not just the letter. This type of obedience can only come from someone who is acting out of something more than fear.”

In my experience, as a child when I did something out of fear of punishment, I did it far more diligently then when I did it simply out of a sense of obligation. I was completely thorough, knowing that my work would be inspected.

I would still be afraid to do the minimum in a situation where I am obeying out of fear, unless that minimum was a clearly defined, easily pin-pointed line. I would be afraid that my minimum wouldn’t be quite enough to avoid punishment.

But besides that, in a situation where someone is doing the minimum required to avoid punishment all the punisher has to do to get more out of them is raise that standard. God’s standard is perfection. God’s standard is obeying the spirit of the law not just the letter.

It seems to me that Chad is talking about a disrespectful fear, a fear where the person who is afraid does not like or respect the person they fear, and they are internally rebelling (and externally rebelling as far as they think they can get away with). This probably happens a lot amongst us humans. However, I do not see how anyone could fear and disrespect God. Doesn’t fear of God inspire great respect? We know that God is omniscient; if we fear him, we must respect him, because we cannot be disrespectful behind his back or internally. Fear of God requires respect. Fear and respect require complete obedience. Complete obedience means doing everything good and everything right.

Maybe the problem is that people do not have enough fear of God. They think that because of grace they don’t have to try as hard as they should, that they can get away with doing wrong and still be forgiven. More fear would overcome this problem; more fear would inspire more obedience, more obedience would inspire more love (because obedience necessarily requires a deeper and deeper knowledge of and relationship with God; you cannot obey God without getting to know him more, and you cannot know him more without loving him more) and as love became perfected, fear would no longer be necessary.

My last thing has to do with Chad’s first paragraph which talks about love of oneself being the basic human condition. This brings to mind a question that I have long had. The Bible says (in Ephesians 5:29) that no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it. But aren’t there a lot of people who hate themselves? And a lot of people who starve themselves or cut themselves or engage in other self-harming behaviors? I guess I must be missing something; I’m just not sure what.

I’ll start with the last question first. When Paul says that no one ever hated his own body, he is talking about common experience, not about pathologies. People who engage in self-destructive behaviors would probably have been regarded as demon-possessed in Paul’s day. In fact, Mark tells us that the Gadarene demoniac “would cry out and cut himself with stones” (Mark 5:5). Yet even such a man retained a desire for his own comfort and happiness. Pascal wrote that all men seek happiness. Everyone does things that are consistent with what they believe will lead to their own happiness or lessen their pain. Those who starve or cut themselves are often attempting to alleviate some intense emotional pain through self-inflicted physical pain.

With regard to Raine’s comments on love and fear, I think she gets it exactly right. In fact, I would argue that fear without respect is not really fear at all. The “half-assed obedience” Chad talks about comes from insufficient fear. If his soldier were really afraid of disobeying, his obedience would not be “half-assed.” It would be meticulous.

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