culture and the church

the traditional position held by the church in our contemporary american culture is interesting to me. i grew up in a church that had been around for a very long time, a swedish baptist church in a small iowa farming town in the gently rolling hills of northern crawford county (kudos to those of you who got that reference). to me, it was how things were done. nobody i knew disliked church, pretty much everybody went to a church and that’s just how things were done. i know that it isn’t like that everywhere, and there’s actually a pretty huge variety in churches. it seems odd to me that the church could grow to be a social institution and really become chiefly social, and then go from that point to being something that people dislike. the early church was pretty controversial and whatnot, but they got attention for taking care of the poor and building each other up and whatnot. granted, many centuries have passed and things tend to change over that amount of time, but i wonder how much of the change that happened is the surrounding culture and how much of it is the church. i don’t think the church is doing everything wrong, but we’re certainly doing some things wrong, and im not entirely sure what all of those things are.

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a new post

i was gone for quite a while there. things sort of died off a bit, i got a little self-conscious after my post about idols. i realized i kept looking back at the stats on my blog to see how many people had been reading it, and decided i wasn’t comfortable with page views being my motivation to write this stuff down. i’ll probably be writing less often now, and we’ll see how that all works out. i hope to have something more to talk about in the next couple days, something worth reading and contemplating, but for now i just thought i’d offer this explanation for my hiatus. 

also, life has been busy. im set to graduate in august now, but still working on a paper for my professor. my little brother tom got married (congrats), and i have started swimming quite a bit at the gym. so with other things taking up bits of my time, i just haven’t really gotten around to writing on here. 

also i hope to write more about things that aren’t related to my dealings with God and whatnot. there’s always more on my mind than just that. i’ll be back with more soon, stick around.

moralism

i struggle with knowing how to deal with moralism. i tend to construct boundaries and rules and whatnot around myself very naturally. in a way, this isn’t really bad. we should build moral boundaries for ourselves according to what we know is good and just and righteous. the problem comes when we start relying more on our little safety nets and behavioral guidelines than we do on God, or when we start finding our security in how well we follow the morals we believe are correct. to me, that’s where the problem arises. if i am following God, should i not be good? and if i am not good, i have violated my moral code. if i am following God, i should grow in holiness and righteousness and become more aligned with what he wants me to be, so i should better fit his standards. but if i’m trying to meet his standards, i’m missing the point. i haven’t figured out how to handle this properly yet. im turning faith into a set of rules. instead of trusting in God and letting him shape me, i’m shaping myself to an image that i think looks like what God wants me to be. it’s a frustrating problem. anyone else struggle with this? how do you keep God before your morality? how do you keep from making your faith into a set of DOs and DONTs?

idols

something that God has been bringing to my attention a lot lately is idols. i dont mean things like money or popularity, i mean carved images, often ornate and valuable, people burn sacrifices to them. i’m just kidding, i meant the other kind. things we hold on to instead of God, things we put our faith in or find comfort or meaning in. i had a short email conversation with the pastor from my church today about the passage in Romans 14 where paul talks about how we aren’t bound by the old testament dietary laws. i wondered, and so asked my pastor, why certain parts of the old testament law are still followed even in the new testament. we’re allowed to eat bacon and wear clothing of blended fabrics, but we still aren’t allowed to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols (seriously, who hasn’t been tempted to do that, amirite?), there are still rules that apply to sex. why did God draw the line where he did? i think it has to do with idolatry.

i’m fairly sure the dietary restrictions and clothing restrictions, and other related laws, were intended to differentiate the jews from the surrounding nations, so that they would hold themselves apart from the other people. i suppose that would be a concern, considering how easily they adopted foreign gods at various times in their history. the parts of the law that we still hold to after the gospels is a different story. i think that the reason we are called to, for example, not commit adultery, is that marriage is a sacred bond that reflects Christ and the church. by violating that bond, we mess with something that God has intended to point to him. sex and relationships are also something we try to find meaning in. the idol food part is a little more cut and dry, it’s an idol worship thing even at face value.

God seems to be of the opinion that bacon isn’t a matter of idolatry, but i think that’s what paul is talking about in Romans 14 when he talks about how we need to be sensitive to those who feel it is necessary for their faith for them to abstain from such things. i can see how if something is not necessarily a bad thing but one that easily tempts you, you might abstain from it altogether. bacon is one of those things for me, but God has strengthened my resolve and i feel confident that i can go forth and eat bacon boldly, but if that’s something you struggle with, or you have doubts about it, you should abstain. “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” Romans 14:23 ESV.

to me, that verse ties it up nicely. if something is detrimental to your faith, you should stay away from it. there are some things God has declared are always in that category, they detract from his glory and give you a wrong image of who he is, they put your faith and hope in something besides his grace and justice and mercy. a recent article (http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/whats-at-stake-in-the-homosexuality-debate) by tony reinke put it nicely, while talking about sexual sin: “Heterosexual sin and homosexual sin alike are ultimately rooted in a worship disorder, a worship disorder that robs the soul of joy now and robs the soul of joy eternally. The fullness of joy we all long for is reserved for those sinners who, by God’s grace alone, have been healed from this worship disorder, who are rightly oriented with the Creator, and who turn away from selfishness that kicks against the created order.” God wants us completely for himself. he will not take second place in your life. whether your idol is a relationship, success, the government (big or small), praise, your job, alcohol, veganism, facebook, music, even your church, your family, your daily routine of reading your Bible (routine can be dangerous), leading a youth group, whatever it is that you find security and meaning in, God will not take second place to it. and what’s more, you will not find happiness and fulfillment in anything less than the perfect God you were created to serve. God has no secondary helper either. none of the things i just listed are inherently bad. they can be good. they might even be things that God has called you to or given to you. but you need to be very conscious that they aren’t even a distant second place to God. they are like a millionth place. as the ever wise c. s. lewis put it, “don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” you can’t lose God. he will never leave you or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6, Hebrews 13:5). there’s nothing better than that. and what’s more, there’s nothing else but that.

are you dissatisfied with life? there’s your answer. you’re not going to find anything that works but God. and it won’t be easy. you can fight it as long as you want, but the Truth doesn’t change. God is the only thing that is going to satisfy that craving you have, that hole in your soul. give him a real earnest chance. give yourself no backup plans. you’ll be surprised.

getting the wrong message

I’ve struggled with being very legalistic, and I think I have taken a lot of comfort in being a pretty heavy-handed moralist. We all live our own lives and we all sin against God, no matter what our personal moral standards are. In the end, we’re all sinners and we all need God’s grace. I’m no better than anyone else I’ve looked down on for their infringement on my own morality. I’m not saying God doesn’t have standards that we should try to live by, but I know I’ve had a tendency to get caught up in what I believe to be acceptable to God.

I guess maybe a part of this is due to our sort of societal “Christian” moralism. I’m not really sure how we should avoid this, but we tend to bring up our kids linking good behavior to loving Jesus. While this isn’t necessarily a false connection, I’m not sure it’s a good one to be making, because it misses the point of the gospel. Kids grow up with this idea that they better be good or Jesus won’t give them any presents at Christmas or something. Jesus becomes at best a smiley “buddy Christ” figure who wants you to be nice but doesn’t mind if you sin once in a while, he’ll forgive you for having fun. At worst he’s the oppressive cosmic overlord who will cook you forever in hell if you mess up, so you better behave. How would you change how we teach kids about Jesus? How do we get the transformational message of the gospel across to children?

approval

It’s strange. As much as I complain to God, he doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he even seems to care about my complaints. He’s very good at taking criticism. Granted, he doesn’t always follow the advice I give him, but sometimes he’ll give me something I ask for, or he’ll give me something I didn’t ask for but needed. He’s pretty good at his job. I like to complain that he doesn’t do things my way. He quite obviously has something better in mind, because I recall some of the things I’ve prayed for and, looking back, I know they were pretty foolish. As C. S. Lewis said, “If God had granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where should I be now?” God doesn’t move at my pace, and I should be happy he doesn’t. I’m not always happy about it, but I should be. It makes my part in all of this very simple. First I must trust that God knows what I need much better than I do. Second I must act accordingly. That’s all there is to it. One step at a time, one day at a time, I must seek his wisdom and his will. When I can’t pull myself closer to him, I must pray that he will drag me towards himself, kicking and screaming if need be. In time, God will shape me and bend me into a better image of himself. He knows what I need to learn.

And you know what? He isn’t looking for me to be perfect. That’s not his goal. He doesn’t expect that from me, because he knows I can’t be perfect. It’s not about me being perfect. One of my favorite pastors, Tullian Tchividjian, said on Twitter today, “The focus of the Christian faith is NOT our imperfect transformation but Christ’s perfect substitution.” God isn’t a moralist. Even if we manage to get to the point where we can pull off perfect adherence to a perfect morality, we can’t be good enough. That’s kind of the point of the law given in the Old Testament. We should look at it and say, “wow… there is no way I can be good enough to please God, I’m going to hell.” That’s where grace comes in. I’ll be talking about that some time soon, probably in the next couple days. I could talk about grace for a very long time. It’s kind of a big deal. In the meantime, read Romans. Also, you should check out Tchividjian’s book, Surprised by Grace. It’s an excellent read.

forward motion

One of the things I struggle with sometimes is that while I’m glad that God is moving in my life and teaching me things, and I know that he needed me to be where I am right now in life, I am upset that he’s not putting other people through the same process in the same way. Am I the only one who needs to be growing right now? Certainly not. Why can’t I have a more comfortable growing process then? I see others in situations I would far rather be in. Is God giving them the easy way out? Do they just not need to grow as much as I do? It’s hard to trust that God is doing the right thing when he’s doing things in a way I’m not comfortable with. I know that in his infinite wisdom, his plan is better than mine, and he uses all things for his glory. Sometimes I just wonder, though, if what serves him best also ends up with me being unhappy. Am I then unhappy simply because my priorities aren’t straight? I’m not sure. I guess I don’t really know that God’s goal in our lives is happiness. Say, for example, that it serves God’s glory to destroy the entire city of Minneapolis except me, and in the long run I learn and grow in him, perhaps that would bring him glory, but I don’t think I could be happy with the circumstances. I may be happy with the growth that comes from those circumstances, but I don’t think God would expect anyone to be happy with those kinds of circumstances. I guess I’m not really sure that God’s goal is for us to be happy, and maybe that’s not what we should be hoping for. I know God has been really pushing things around in me lately, and I’m glad to see that he’s moving in me. It’s just sometimes hard to see him work and not know what his plan is.