Friday, November 04, 2005

The Heart of the Father

Further Thoughts on the State of the Suburban Church

What makes you feel guilty?

I had a conversation with my brother this week about guilt and conviction. Apparently, David was confronted by someone in his congregation (let's call him Jack) who felt that David's teaching on a Christian's responsibility to assist the poor was a misrepresentation of Scripture. "Jack" said that if David felt convicted to help the poor, that was great. But because Jack didn't feel convicted in that way, he didn't feel it was a universal principle that David ought to be teaching on.

A little bit of background. The church David works for is located in the suburbs of a small metropolitan area. Most of the pastoral staff at his church only feel "led" to equip their congregation with the necessary skills to minister to other suburbanites. David and his wife, however, don't live in the suburbs along with most of the church. They both have experiences teaching in impoverished urban environments, and live in a decidedly low-scale part of town. But it was never their plan. They live where they live because it's what they can afford. And they've worked where they've worked because it's where God presented opportunities for gainful employment. But, as is often the case, God took advantage of their situation, and has been giving David and Wendy a heart for their neighborhood. That's how God works. He makes our plans his plans eventually....if we're open to it. Sometimes, even when we're not.

Back to Jack. Jack's perspective is one held by a good number of suburban Christians. In my last post, I talked a little bit about what drove people to the suburbs in the first place, and those same reasons still apply today. Suburbs are a fenced-off area for those who can afford it, offering safe streets, good schools, low crime rates and easy-access to $4 coffees and Baby Gaps. They get you out of the big-bad city and into a worry-free environment. Or so the story goes.

But the Christian is called to more. Even suburbanites are called by Christ to identify with and offer direct service to the poor and oppressed.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.... then the King will say to those on his right hand, 'Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? Or when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?' And the King will answer and say to them, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' (Matt. 25:31-40)

Jesus continues with strong words for those who ignore the poor: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave me no food..." Scary stuff, indeed.

But Jack still doesn't feel "convicted" about helping the poor. This lack of conviction seems to stem from a post-Holiness/Charismatic condition that paralyzes the Protestant Church of today: The belief that if the Holy Spirit doesn't convict me of something, it's not a problem I have to worry about. Don't feel bad when you hear about thousands of AIDS deaths in Africa? Nothing to worry about. Don't get convicted when you refuse to make eye contact with the guy on the street shaking a cup of change? It's just natural. Don't feel bad about ignoring millions of people on death's door halfway across the globe? Crap luck, but that's life.

This sort of justification for inaction sweeps a large part of the Gospel message neatly under the rug [see older posts on this topic both here and there]. And it completely ignores how we as Christians encounter the risen Christ. While it's true that there is a universal moral law of sorts, "urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong" as C.S. Lewis wrote -- an universal that guides our hearts apart from the knowledge found in Scripture -- it's only in the reading of and reflecting on the revelation of God found in the Bible that we truly encounter Jesus as Lord.

And it's only when we encounter Christ in this way -- when we seek after the heart of Father God just as he did -- that we come to know what it means to be a people marked by love, a people known for their compassion and graciousness despite of our faults as fallen human beings.

Conviction, as the Christian understands it, doesn't come by reflecting on good thoughts or trying to understand the shadowy "will" of the Spirit. Conviction comes through prayerful reflection on the stories and teachings found in the Bible, specifically the teachings and actions of God in Christ Jesus.

Now it's one thing to study the Bible and have knowledge of what the words say. Anybody can do that. The words of the Bible are available in Greek and Hebrew and English and Mandarin for anyone to see and read and comprehend.

But the Christian is equipped with the guidance of the Spirit when approaching Scripture. Not in some syrupy, pseudo-spiritual way, but in a way that opens our meditations on Scripture in ways that are only available to those who seek the Risen Christ. With the guidance of the Spirit we can do more than simply know of Jesus, we encounter the Incarnate Son -- the Word of God made flesh who dwelt among us.

No one can expect Jack to ever feel convicted to help the poor if his church never talks about it -- if they never reflect on what it means that God in Christ humbled himself in becoming human, humbled himself to die, humbled himself to being nailed to a wooden post, a death reserved for common criminals. Christ's humiliation on Golgotha was the ultimate example a cross-cultural experience if there ever was one -- the Word made flesh and submitting to death. If we claim to live by Christ's example, if we seek to live a life under the shadow of the cross and the hope of the resurrection, how can we not seek to identify with the situation of those who are different from us?

But it takes time. My brother is a patient man, and knows that rivers don't change direction overnight. Jack needs someone to gradually open up those less-traveled portions of Scripture for him, dust-covered passages from so long a time spent on the shelf suburban bliss. There is a place for the prophetic word in these situations, but there is also the place for Christians pulling Christians alongside themselves with grace and mercy and patience and compassion. The suburban church has long been a stronghold for ignorance. And it take time, decades perhaps, for the Bible to get a good dusting off. But eventually, God makes his plans known, and his desires made public.

Because there will always be someone to preach the Word. Someone to speak the Gospel. Someone to teach how the cross should turn our lives upside down, and someone to testify how the empty tomb should turn our priorities inside out.

And this is how we encounter Christ. Reflecting on the risen Lord, through the revelation of the Bible, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the midst of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Putting away the old man, and putting on a brand new suit, tailor-made just for us. Turning our eyes away from our own selfish desires and reaching out to the hungry and the thirsty and naked and the sick and the oppressed.

In other words, seeking him. And him alone.

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