Monday, November 23, 2009

What's missing in the movement

There's a movement within American Christianity towards a kind of greater social awareness and promotion of social justice. It's made up of people who embrace typically "liberal" ideals and support typically "liberal" causes: homelessness, racial equality, fair wages, child labor, sustainable use of resources, etc. I'd find myself in most cases aligning myself with them with their beliefs and priorities, but when I read the things they write or listen to what they have to say, I find myself wanting to rip my hair out.

For several reasons:

1) They appear more concerned with image and perception than the hard realities and doctrines of Scripture. I come across a lot of issue-dodging, especially when it comes to doctrines like hell and homosexuality, where straight (pardon the unintended pun) questions are often deferred and stances are not taken. They'll say things like, "Well, many people who follow Jesus disagree about what Scripture says on this issue," or "I don't like to argue about that, especially when so many people are dying of starvation every day." Maybe so, pal, but answering the question straight won't be stealing food out of anyone's mouth. Their avoidance of these questions makes it seem as if they're afraid that saying outright what they believe Christianity and Scripture teaches will then alienate them from the people they've worked so hard to be accepted by. (Which, truthfully, it pobably would.)

2) They like to bash the fringe elements in Christianity. They don't always do this in a straightforward manner. It's more of a name-dropping, aren't-you-glad-we're-not-like-so-and-so sort of a thing. Again, it's understandable, and I've engaged in the same behavior on a few occassions. But it's wasted energy and pointless back-patting. Sure, be glad you're not a Creflo Dollar Christian, or a Fred Phelps disciple, or a Pat Robertson junkie (Not that some of these fellows could even be considered being part of the fold, but still...). But aren't you wasting your breath discrediting them when people are dying of starvation? And who listens to these nuts anyway?

3) They appear to have a commitment to their causes that supercedes their commitment to Christ. The line becomes blurred between the Gospel and their immediate political cause. To them, Jesus came to end poverty, rather than coming to redeem sinners to Himself.

It's this third item that I think makes what they say often impalatable to me. There's a distinct lack of the Spirit of Christ in their attitudes and their communication. Their intentions are good, but they're not driven by a deep desire to see the Gospel spread. Their ends appear more humanitarian than for God to be glorified and the Kingdom to be spread. So while I often find what they say to be praiseworthy, and they put many issues on my radar which I generally wouldn't know about, I ultimately cannot align myself with them. I wish I could, because in many ways I find that what they have to say about social justice makes much more sense than anything most of the rest of the church is saying. But I am solidly Reformed in my thinking, and cannot shake the deep understanding of what the Gospel is, and why Christ truly came. We can say that ultimately He did come to end poverty, and He did call us to love all people equally and not show favoritism. But these are the fruit of the Spirit's work in our lives, and we can't separate the fruit from the Spirit any more than you can buy a pair of Nikes not made by a starving, exploited child.

And it's for these reasons that I find what people in this camp (sometimes called "emergent," although that buzzword appears to be fading into the distance) have to say so bittersweet. I'm glad they say it, but I wish that what they said came with more of a commitment to the truth of Scripture and to the spread of the glorious name of Jesus. I look desperately for those voices who do both. There's a balance to be found, I'm sure of it.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A little bit on baptism

I began this post awhile ago, but didn't finish it. I returned to it this morning:


A baby was baptized at my church this week. This was not the first time I have witnessed such an event, but it is the first time I have seen it since I knew that I have a child soon to arrive in this world. It made me think just a bit more about the significance of baptism, and how I have changed so drastically in my approach to it.

I grew up under the assumption that it was only the theologically liberal churches who baptized babies, because they didn't believe in salvation anyway and were almost as bad as Catholics so why not. (Well...I may exaggerate. A little.) I believed that baptism ought to be a profession of faith, an acknowledgement that you were tossing your lot in with Jesus for good. A symbol of your death to sin and resurrection into newness of life in Christ. Et cetera, et cetera.

None of which is invalid. It simply dismisses another very large element to baptism, and that is God's promise to covenant with families.

When I first learned that baptism of babies wasn't just for liberals and Catholics, that there was a very significant percentage of theologically conservative Presbyterians and Methodists who likewise sprinkled their offspring, I was not necessarily dismayed, but something akin to it. It didn't make sense to me. It seemed so obvious that the examples of baptism in the Bible all favored the dunk-tank over the spritzer. But since so many people that I had come to hold in some semblance of high regard (Sproul, for one) seemed to believe in this nonsense, I didn't dismiss it immediately.

And it's true that we don't have any stated examples in the Bible of babies being baptized, but there are a couple of examples of entire households being baptized when the head of household becomes a Christian. The argument there seemed a little weak to me at the time, since it was very possible that everyone made a profession of faith before being baptized. And it seemed so clear that the new covenant dealt with individuals rather than nations and families like the old covenant. Like Jeremiah said:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.

"But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:31-34)

Clear, right? The old covenant isn't like the new one - it can't be broken because the law's on the inside and everyone within it knows the Lord, "from the least to the greatest." So how can we baptize those who have not made a profession of faith in the Lord, thus stating their membership into this new covenant? Wouldn't this go against the nature of the new covenant?

Well, let's define what the old and new covenants are, exactly. The old covenant is that of the law: those who are sealed into it by circumcision are to keep the law and all it requires, including making sacrifices for their sins when they fail it. They are sealed into it not of their own accord, but by nature of the family and nation they were born into. So when they grow up, they can choose to keep the covenant and incur the blessings God promises for those who obey Him, or break it, and incur the curses God promises for those who disobey.

The new covenant is similar: those who are sealed into it by baptism are to believe in Jesus' fulfillment of the old covenant commands on their behalf, and to continue in relationship with Him through faith. If you believe in what is called "believer's baptism," or "credobaptism," then you believe that when you decide to keep this covenant, you make the decision to take the seal upon yourself as well. But both essentially require the one who is sealed to pledge obedience at some point. In the old covenant, the one sealed didn't have the choice to enter covenant - it was done by the will of his parents. In the new covenant, the idea is debated - does God now call individuals to covenant with Him, or does He still work through families?

To get to the point where I could accept that maybe baptism wasn't as cut-and-dried as I once supposed, I had to fist admit that even within those who get baptized after some profession of faith, many probably have not been genuinely saved. So what does that do but make them breakers of the new covenant? They made a promise to God to believe in His work of salvation on their behalf, and they didn't keep it. They violated the seal placed on them. Just as with the old covenant, not every man circumcised continued in fellowship with God, so not everyone baptized does the same.

So if this is true, where does that leave us in relation to who should be baptized? It's still a bit of a step to admit that even those who are baptized as "believers" can be disobedient, to then say that since that's true, you might as well baptize those who haven't made any sort of profession of faith.

So I started looking at other covenants in the Bible, to see how in the entirety of what we Christians call "redemptive history," God deals with people through these covenants. From the very beginning, He seems to cut out the importance of people agreeing to enter covenant with Him. Adam He set up as the representative head of all mankind, and when Adam broke that covenant of obedience, all of His offspring were credited with his unrighteousness, even though they were not yet born and had nothing to do with Adam's sin. Thus we are all born inheriting the disobedience of Adam.

Then God made His covenant with Abraham, telling him that "all the nations of the earth will be blessed through your seed." And He told him to pass down this promise by circumcising all his male descendants. They inherited the blessings God promised Abraham, not through their own virtue, but by virtue of God's promise. If they rejected those blessings through their disobedience, then God would judge them, but it didn't change the fact that they were born under the covenant.

It appeared to me then (as it does now) that God believes in continuity in the covenants He makes, even in David's (One of David's offspring will sit on the throne forever). It seems incongruous to me then to assume that when it comes to the new covenant, God does not carry it through to the offspring of those who enter covenant with Him. If He has dealt all through history through families and blessing the children of those who love Him, why would He not pass on the blessings of the new covenant to its members' children? And as a further aside, the historical evidence also indicates that infant baptism was extremely common in the early church as well.

So I look forward with eager anticipation to baptizing my daughter while yet she can make a decision to follow Christ or not. I will claim on her behalf the blessings of being born into the covenant community. There is a beauty and peace in believing that for love of me, God will love and be faithful to my children as well; and there's a beauty and peace in being able to treat my child as part of the family of God even before she is old enough to make some profession of faith.

PS: I could cite far more Scriptural support for the practice of infant baptism, but I want to keep this brief. If anyone wishes for more information, we can continue the discussion in the comments section.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Blog Pimpin'

Yet another blog. This one Sarah and I are using to chronicle our journey towards our ultimate goal of working with the Yakama people by next year. Please check it out.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Localities: an introduction to Wendell Berry

I'm quickly becoming a disciple of Wendell Berry. He's one of those men of whom I believe every one - especially every Christian - ought to be familiar with. Even if you're not one to read fiction, especially of the more literary genre, you can skip that and go straight to his essays. He writes frankly, practically, and in a way that makes it impossible to argue with him because he is so obviously right. He's in a way more conservative than anyone I've ever heard of in his absolute disdain for big government and his distrust of it to answer any problems, yet his ideas are at the same time more completely anti-corporate than any liberal I have ever heard of. He is, in other words, a free thinker.

I recently finished his book of essays entitled "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community," a collection of eight essays centering around the themes of ... well... you can probably guess. Berry's philosophy largely revolves around the importance of community as a counter against the unrelenting tide of globalism and unlimited growth. He's a farmer, making a living off his land in Kentucky, and preaches that the "new" (relatively speaking) global economy, which has replaced local economies to the point where one buys nearly everything they have from somewhere else and rarely ever knows the history of how it got to them, is slowly destroying the world through its disconnection of product from origin. This disconnection feeds into first, an apathy towards what we buy, since we have no way of knowing the story of how it came to us without exhaustive research, and second, a dependency on globalism to provide what we have forgotten how to produce ourselves. Such a gap between producer and consumer causes the human aspect to be lost, Berry says, and the consumer no longer cares what the cost of human life or environmental damage is for him to get the product he wants. And when corporations must think on a global scale and sever ties to any specific location, they also lose the accountability and restraint that "place" puts on them, thus making it justifiable to ship jobs out to locations where labor is cheaper, effectively killing communities in the process. This especially shows its ugliness in the agricultural market, since the globalization of food has killed farms all over the world, making formerly self-sufficient third-world farmers into global sharecroppers.

The answer Berry proposes, and one that makes utter sense, is this: reduce the distance between producer and consumer. Create local, sustainable economies that are as far as possible self-sufficient. Reject the idea of unlimited growth (for such a thing cannot exist when resources are limited) and move toward sustainable growth. Cities and urban centers ought to be able to support themselves with the countryside around them.

Of course such an idea would require massive change to pull off. First it would require an utter reversal of the American ideal of immediate gratification (not an easy accomplishment, since I think this almost more than any other principle is what America was built on). It would require an effort on the part of all who want to see the tide stemmed to buy locally, and produce themselves, whatever they can.

I already see steps being taken towards these ideals now. The upswing of CSAs - community-supported agriculture - farmers who sell shares to city dwellers who then get dividends paid in produce, is another sign that there may be a trend away from the current structure. With a little more effort, I think we could see a vast shift, especially in the current economic climate, away from what is an unstable, unsustainable system.

I'd encourage you to check out some of his essays here if you have never read him before.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A calling

I regret to say that because readership is down, I can only afford to post every four months now as a means of cutting costs in these dire times.

Ha Ha.

The truth is, I haven't really known what to write about in the past few months. The part of my life that I have wanted most to share with all of you I have not felt free to put up for public perusal yet.

But I do so now.

This is something I began writing some time ago, but found my words failing every time I tried to write about it. Even now it seems weak to truly describe my thoughts, but I offer it up anyhow as the best I can do:

It always shines brighter in the dark places.

White Swan, The Yakama Nation, Washington. Sixty-five degrees in early April. Overcast.

The landscape seems to reflect the lives of the people of this place in its starkness, its desolation. I look to the bare hills that horseshoe around this valley of scrub brush and stolen farmland and wonder at the sense of bringing the gospel here. History would say these people ought to slam doors on faces of anyone who brings the name of Jesus. Christianity has not been kind to Native America.

Sarah and I came here as an experiment. Somehow God led us here, we firmly believe, and He wants us to see the work being done, to see if perhaps we can become a part of it. Can we be ambassadors of reconciliation to a people who were betrayed by our forerunners? Can we begin to heal deep wounds as old as Columbus?

The wounds of Christendom against Native America are indeed great, and as a nation and a church we have largely forgotten they exist. They're often spoken about in the past tense, as if we assume the genocide unleashed against them succeeded, or perhaps we wish it had. They rest at the bottom in our country in school dropouts, in mortality rates, in alocholism and addiction rates, in poverty. They are a defeated people, whose lives and culture were stolen from them, and they still stagger from the suddenness of it.

All this information, these unhinged ideas, seem to take form here in the landscape surrounding me. I see in each dilapidated house with roof falling in the force of history; I see in the faces of defiant little boys the impact of what befell these people. I see sin; I see need for restoration, for justice -- for Jesus.

Rain falls on the hills to the west, but does not move into the valley, seeming to disdain it, choosing instead to stay just out of reach. Even in April the ground is dry, and dust swirls in a breeze. Everything I see seems thirsty, crying out for drink. If only the rain would come down out of the hills, I think. This land would accept it gladly, soak it up, beg for more.

The people here are beautiful, shining brighter, I think, because of the darkness. I see Jesus everywhere I look: in each child who runs the field in Totus Park, in the lady we picked up on Fort Road and gave a ride into White Swan, in those who take home food from the Tuesday night Bible study and dinner at the longhouse. I feel Jesus among them, His great love for them, His overwhelming tenderness towards them, and I can't help but be moved to serve them.

That was April. It's February now, and looking back at all the times since that first week that we've spent among the Yakamas, the love has done nothing but deepen. Sarah and I have pursued that calling we believe God's place on our heart, and it seems that God would have us go. He would have us continue the mending – to become Jesus to the Yakama people. May He work in us mightily to this end.