Pastor’s Perspective – January 2014
I have now experienced 47 New Years. Each year December becomes January and the ever accelerating cycle begins again. As a youth I had time to consider the promise of the New Year and to envision necessary changes to my life. As I have grown older the concept of a New Years’ resolution has become more and more unlikely. Patterns that have taken years to develop are hardened by time and eventually can seem to be set in stone.
Psychologists tell me that I am entering into the time of life where change is as unwelcome as it is unlikely. Yet I yearn for change. I look around the world and see hundreds of millions of people desperate for relief and yearning for transformation. My New Years prayer is the same today as it has been for decades, change me Lord. Change me so that I can help to change the world.
I like to believe that I am not alone in this prayer. On the best of days I am hopeful that perhaps the tide is changing and people are ready for the transformational change that can only come from God. But then I watch the news and my optimism deflates. I am tired of the news that I hear and even more tired with the way the news is delivered. I am tired of school shootings. I am also tired of having to listen to opportunistic politicians and ambulance chasing advocates waving the bloody shirts of the dead for their own personal gain. I am tired of hearing about family dysfunction and breakdown, about divorces, abuse, and addictions. I am also tired of hearing the psychologists and self-help book writers selling their myopic solutions to the problems of the American family, or worse yet, trying to convince us that there is really no problem at all. I am tired of a world in which being right is more important than being righteous; a world in which winning has become so much more important than living a good life.
In essence I am tired of the system that we live in. I am tired of trying to please a world that simultaneously mourns and celebrates the sin and brokenness that we experience. I am tired, but I am not defeated. I am not finished.
The truth is that my fatigue has helped me to rekindle the old instinct and seek once again a new vision and a new resolution this year. It is a resolution in two parts. It must have two parts or else it will leave me trapped in one of two impossible choices. The first part of my resolution is to stop living by the rules and the standards that the world imposes upon me. To pull myself away from the external expectations of the world and the power of those who would ostensibly rule the world.
When this part of my resolution stands alone, then I am tempted to hide from the world; to escape or retreat from society and build a bunker somewhere in the woods. Rejecting the stain and the contagion of the world is a fine idea, but time has shown me that it is a lousy way to accomplish mission. When we stop listening to the world, then we become insulated from the pain that our neighbors feel and the impact of human sinfulness. We cannot protect ourselves from the world without cutting off our love and care for those we have been called to love.
The consequence of our protective impulse leads us far away from our Christian mission. While many believe that they would be better off without the chains of the world binding them, the sad truth is that a Christian without a people to love or a message of hope to deliver cannot be a true follower of Jesus Christ.
This is why my first resolution cannot stand alone. The second wing in my resolution helps to balance my disagreement with the world’s goals and structure with a hopefulness that all God has created has worth and value. My second resolution is to fully engage in the world around me. This resolution compels me to pay attention to the people around me and the problems that they experience. If the first part of my resolution is a result of my depression and dissatisfaction with the world, the second part is recognition that my own role in our world must be improved and increased.
Far too many people know that there is something wrong with the world, but fail to do anything to change it. Many well-meaning Christians, who reject the sway of the world, ironically become trapped in a worldly blame game where the other guy/party/ team is always at fault. We begin to believe that if only we were to get rid of the “other” then everything would be fantastic. First resolution people can experience endless physical and psycho-spiritual warfare with attacks and retreats dominating our lives.
Second resolution people can fall into a self-satisfying trap of saving the world through our own transformative strength. While they often seem more hopeful than the first group, in the end their hope is based on their own personal attitudes and strength. These are the young idealists, who spend their early years on mission trips and work to better the planet, but who eventually sell out for a McMansion in a gated community, angry and guilt ridden over their failure to truly make a difference.
I have spent years battling between these two resolutions. Each moment tossing me back a forth as I struggle between a declaration of war with the world and a full throated embrace of those around me. For years I have struggled with a Greek dominated black and white; either/or view of the world. Today I am ready to embrace the Hebraic both/and vision of Christian engagement.
I believe that this both/and engagement is best way to follow the instructions given to us by Jesus to “be in the world, but not of the world.” “In but not of” is a classic both/and statement, letting us know that we can embrace and love a fallen and messed up world without denying the God that leads us. We can acknowledge human sinfulness while still loving and maintaining a close relationship and love for human sinners. We can know that the system is broken while still caring deeply and passionately for those who struggle within it.
This is how God is calling us to be distinct from the world. To no longer be governed by the opinions of those who edit the society pages or those who write the rules for what is hip or cool. We do not need to keep up with the Joneses or judge ourselves based on income level or status. But neither should we retreat from the world or despise those whose status or wealth is greater than ours. We must maintain our connection with people or else we will have no earthly value to the Kingdom of God. In order to be salt, we must have a chemical reaction with those we come into contact with. In order to be light, we must stand in contrast to the darkness around us. In order to be either, we must make a difference in the lives of those in our neighborhoods and cities.
So this year I have two resolutions. I will care less about what the world thinks about me. I will no longer judge myself based on their standards. I will also care more about my world. I will no longer judge them by my standards. I will love them based on the standard of God’s grace. I will judge my own worth based on the worth that God showed me by giving His son Jesus Christ. I will simultaneously love others based on the very same standard that God set through His grace.
It is my prayer that 2014 will be a year of resolutions within the Church. That we will hold ourselves to the standards of God’s kingdom, and that we will reach out in love by the standards of God’s grace.
My God bless us and make us a blessing in 2014.