Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Confused Culture and a Clear Christ

Writing on a blog is hard. I really try to be clear and helpful, engage the culture in a timely and relevant way, and tie my posts together enough so that if you are a faithful reader, you can really see the connection and direction of my thoughts. But then I also want them to be independent and simple enough that if you are a first time reader they will make sense to you and be worth your time. And of course I try to be brief, but so far that has been a futile effort (sorry!). I guess for me, life is too short to be brief. I want to use the words in my brain and on my heart while they are still there. And then of course I try to be humble, knowing that my words are temporary, not original, and come from a highly imperfect man. But by the grace of God I know that they might possibly lead people closer to the infallible and eternal word in the Bible, and the irresistibly desirable and infinitely perfect Person of Jesus Christ found in it.

The last year or so on this blog, within the overall theme of offering the Gospel of Jesus Christ as simple and profound truth for a complex culture, I have been trying to do two things:

1. Discern and participate in the nature and developments of the “church” in America, and understand and live what the church really is and what it should look like. Why should I go to church? What church should I go to? What does “church” mean?

2. Discern and participate in the nature and fruits of a “Christian” person, and understand this in order to live and explain it in such a way as to be confirming for the Christian, convicting and loving for the non-Christian, and effective for all so the increasing reality of loving our neighbor in an authentic and God-honoring way is realized.

These two things are starting to come to a head in my life, and in current events, which is encouraging, complicated, and a bit convicting. Encouraging because it confirms that questions, answers, and insight I have experienced in the last several months have not been without purpose, and have been from God. Complicated because what it means to be a Christian in community, and individually, is messy, and not neatly outlined in the Bible to be understood and experienced without effort. And convicting because it is real; there really are churches that are unbalanced and unbiblical in a way that is detrimental to the kingdom of God; and there really are people who profess to be Christians but defraud the name of Christ by their unbiblical proclamation or hypocritical demonstration of the gospel. The Bible commands us to be aware of and respond to both these realities.

So what I am absolutely convinced of is that as followers of Christ we have to be clear, so that we can be helpful. We have to be clear in our truth. We have to be clear in our community. We have to be clear in our love. We have to be clear that God is holy, that we are sinners, that the Bible is preeminent, and that the cross is central, to all of life and human experience. We have to be clear that if we have not love, we have nothing. It sounds simple (even if you disagree). Alas, our sinful nature has made it horribly confusing, so much so that non-Christians aren’t even listening to our message and some Christians don’t understand its power, and too many are choosing a temporary, functional savior instead of the eternal savior who went through a bloody cross to the right hand of God.


I'll spare you the news update on the fallen Governor of South Carolina, except to say that it is clear we don't seem to be at the bottom of his failure yet. He is not the first to fall in this way, and he will surely not be the last. Such a shame that he confused some into believing he was worthy of being in the 2012 presidential conversations. Such a shame that many trusted and respected him to lead them in a confusing time in our country, and for his party. Such a shame that the adultery was not the end of this story; deception was and is there also. Such a shame for his wife and children. Such a shame that there was a spiritual component to this journey, yet little true repentence and little mention of the cross of Christ.

But we shouldn't forget about those who have fallen before him: United States presidents, popular and influential pastors, and Old Testament heroes. Let anyone who thinks he stands firm take heed lest he fall! We scorn and rebuke his actions, as we should, but we also should appreciate the gut check. In our wordly hell of loneliness, tension, and unquenced desire for companionship, do we above all else seek for sexual escape and romantic fairytales, or do we seek the crucified and exalted Christ? Mark Sanford went through spiritual boot camp looking for an answer to his condition, but in the end, the escape and romance he found in Argentina was his functional savior, and look where it led him.


In all likelihood, Bernard Madoff will die in prison. 150 years is a long time. Most of us are glad and acknowledge that he deserves it. And he does. He deceived and stole untold amounts of money from people of all kinds and manipulated the system in ways I am certainly not bright enough to explain or understand. His crimes will trickle down and affect generations of Americans. 150 years doesn't seem that long when you think about all that.

Yet we shouldn't be quick to judge. What was at the bottom of Madoff's motives and deception? Was it not greed? In his worldly hell of fear and insecurity, he sought after the functional savior of monetary gain and financial wealth. Are we so different? What Madoff, and all of us, actually deserve is far longer than 150 years. And no amount of money will save us from that plight. Only a crucified and exalted Christ can. Bernard Madoff escaped a life of poverty to become one of the riches men in America, and look where it led him.


Breaking the trend of the two men mentioned above, this doesn't seem to be the time to discuss the controversy surronding the life, nor the confusion surrounding the death, of Michael Jackson. I grew up in the 80s and for my money entertainment does not get better than the gravity-defying lean in the Smooth Criminal video. He was an amazing talent and entertainer. I will not paint a picture of his sin and brokenness and then say look where it led him. Like some, I would like to believe the Sovereign God of the Universe opened the eyes of his heart and gave him the strength to believe in his last days. It is certainly possible.

But I think it is helpful to look at his life as an example and warning of the insufficency of functional saviors. Dan Phillips says it this way:

"What Jackson did to himself is what we all do to ourselves outside of Christ. The difference is that Jackson's failed attempts were all worn obviously, in public view, on the changing tapestry of his face, while we may mask ours better. As you shrink from the Frankenstein shock of Jackson's visage, reflect: mankind was created in God's image, and still bears that image. But in seeking to take God's place and make themselves gods, our foreparents did to their whole beings what Michael Jackson did to his face: they horridly disfigured themselves and all of us, leaving a repulsive mockery of what we were meant to be. The only solution for us is not a succession of endeavors to remake ourselves. Each attempt leaves a worse spectacle than the previous, and moves us further from what we truly need. We do not need new faces. We need new natures. We need the miracle of regeneration, not the tragedy of manmade makeovers."

In our worldly hell of confused identity, low self-esteem, and ridicule from men, do we seek the temporary, functional savior of glamour, physical makeover, and external beauty, or the eternal savior of the crucified and exalted Christ?


Continuing to break the trend from the first two people mentioned, I am using Obama here merely as an example of what so many in our culture do. Obviously Barack Obama is not in the same category, and actually, in many ways, doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with these three men, certainly not the first two. But because of the timing and relevance of his journey as outlined in this article, I included him in this post.

The Obama family is looking for a church. Can you relate? There are mixed reports on whether they have found one, but I'm not sure that is the point. The point is that so many in our culture are in the same situation, and don't seem to think it is a big deal. Some never stop looking. Some stop and find one, but it becomes a religion only to them. In their worldly hell of legalism and self-justification they seek the functional savior of religion, and accomplish their salvation when they find a building to go in every week or so. But then when life gets hard, or the church changes the music, or real trial and tribulation come, they leave the church or become angry and confused as to why their religion did not bring constant reward. Like the elder brother in Luke 15, they (we) demand a celebration because of our goodness. And if we our lucky, we realize that our goodness is detestable to God (and not really that good), and our only hope is the eternal savior of a crucified and exalted Christ.


There is nothing uniquely special or uniquely immoral about these men. We are all human and are all sinners, so even the President (and certainly you and I) could be included in a list such as this to illustrate the relevance of the gospel to our broken condition. We all resort to confusing functional saviors when a clear everlasting savior beckons. Rebellion against the beauty and all-sufficiency of Christ for salvation, as a talented and legendary (but disturbed) pop star, or as a crooked and deceptive scam artist, or as an adulterous governor, or as the President of the United States, or as a middle-class Joe Sixpack, or as a well-meaning social worker, (etc.), results in the same separation from the desire of our souls and purpose in creation. If you don’t agree with that statement, not much else on this blog will make any sense to you. And that is not because it is confusing. It is because it is foolishness. But it is gospel.

Because repentance and trust in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, for a talented and legendary (but disturbed) pop star, or for a crooked and deceptive scam artist, or for an adulterous governor, or for the President of the United States, or for a middle-class Joe Sixpack, or for a well-meaning social worker, (etc.), results in the same reconciliation with the desire of our souls and purpose in creation, and everlasting joy. That is the gospel.

So as the culture challenges its expectations and desires for “church”, and the “church” challenges structure and style with new ideas and programs and manages the reality of hypocrisy and false proclamation in its midst, ultimately the gospel and the fruit and love from it is the only thing that matters. My deepest hope and conviction is that focus on the gospel will reveal (and increase) those with saving faith, and organically create and maintain the biblical, effective, God-honoring concept of “church”, namely people living the gospel word in gospel community; until He comes back and establishes forever the reality that authentic Christians living in gospel community (church) have always meant to foreshadow.

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