Friday, November 30, 2012

The Cut-Flower Syndrome

Will Herberg was an American Jewish sociologist and theologian who turned from his Communist roots to join the Conservative movement during the days of William F. Buckley, Jr.

In Judaism and Modern Man he wrote:
"The attempt made in recent decades by secularist thinkers to disengage the moral principles of western civilization from their scripturally based religious context, in the assurance that they could live a life of their own as "humanistic" ethics, has resulted in our "cut flower culture." Cut flowers retain their original beauty and fragrance, but only so long as they retain the vitality that they have drawn from their now-severed roots; after that is exhausted, they wither and die. So with freedom, brotherhood, justice, and personal dignity — the values that form the moral foundation of our civilization. Without the life-giving power of the faith out of which they have sprung, they possess neither meaning nor vitality."

In other words, flowers still look like flowers when they are cut and put in a vase. But they are doomed to wither and die. So it is with Western ethics. Germinated from a Judeo-Christian foundation, the flower is beautiful. But now, severed from the roots of faith, it is destined to wither and die.

In my opinion, we are in the withering phase of "cut flower culture" in the USA and following hard after the almost completely dead phase being experienced in much of Western Europe. There is a thinning veneer of Christian ethics being replaced by an ethics based on relativism and humanistic philosophy devoid of God.

But my purpose with this blog is not to whine and complain about the post-Christian culture emerging in the West. Instead, I want to look at the danger of the "cut-flower syndrome" in the church.

The church is always one generation away from extinction. Vital Christian faith is not passed genetically like hair color. We cannot simply assume that our children will "catch" it because they are our kids or because they go to church with us. We must introduce them to Jesus and call them to a vital and life-long discipleship to Him.

In the same way, we cannot assume that building a wonderful worship-center and Christian education building in a great location will ensure the passing on of the baton to the next generation. Buildings and endowments keep the flower going, but are not necessarily connecting it to the roots.

Israel demonstrated the same cut-flower syndrome throughout its history. David and Solomon raised the country to world-prominence and glory with the building of palace and temple and the conquering of foes. The Queen of Sheba made the long trip to marvel at the glory of it all.

"She said to the king, 'The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. How happy your men must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD's eternal love for Israel, he has made you king, to maintain justice and righteousness'" (1 Kings 10: 6-9).

The external glory of palace, temple, priesthood, army, precious articles of worship, etc.--these can be mistaken for the important elements of national identity. But it was the Presence of God that descended on the Temple at its dedication that made it holy. Just as the dusty old Tabernacle in the wilderness, as crude and unimpressive as it must have looked from the outside, had been filled with the cloud of God's Presence in the desert. 

And so, when Ezekiel observes the departure of the Presence of God from the Temple, it is the cut-flower principle from then on. The Temple remains, but the Presence is gone.

That is why Jesus responds to his disciples' expressions of awe over the impressive Temple of Herod: "'Do you see all these things?,' he asked. 'I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down'" (Matt. 24: 2). 

The People of God had fallen in love with the buildings, and the rituals, and the external forms--but had been cut-off from the roots--the very Presence of God. And as somebody who has toured many churches and cathedrals in Europe, I can say that many of them stand like withering flowers--still beautiful but devoid of life.

Let us learn a lesson from Israel. It's okay to enjoy prosperity and to build impressive church facilities. But let us never become so enamored with those externals that we get disconnected from the roots of a vibrant and life-giving faith in Jesus Himself--and let us not settle for anything that substitutes for His Presence among us. Even if you're meeting Him in a tent in the desert, His Presence makes all the difference.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Examined Life

"The unexamined life is not worth living." Thus Plato quotes his teacher, Socrates.

Of course Socrates is talking about the need for the moral person to examine his life in light of "virtue" so that he or she can live a good life. The life that seeks to live ethically pure results in the greatest good.

Certainly for the Christian, the concept is also true. Only by looking into our own hearts and examining our own behaviors can we hope to change. Not only is it important that our behavior come under scrutiny, but the motives behind our behavior must also be judged. Thus Jesus says, it is not just sinful to commit adultery, but it is sinful to give in to lustful thoughts. It is not just sinful to murder my brother, it is sinful to live with hatred towards my brother.

But the examination of our hearts is not left solely to our own conscience. In other words, just because I am not feeling convicted, it does not justify my behavior.

For example, a disturbing trend in our digital age is that many young people do not think that sharing pirated copies of music with their friends is wrong. It doesn't feel wrong to share with my friends. And besides, the music industry is rich and can afford it. The idea of piracy being wrong does not intrude on my personal behavior.

And so, we need external and objective standards by which to evaluate our own hearts. That is why the Bible is so important.

"For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Heb. 4:12).

Paul says that the Word is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2Tim. 3:16).

But if it was just a matter of changing my mind, Christian transformation would be easy. But as soon as our minds are convinced of God's ethical way and we want to change from walking according to the "flesh," we find that a "war" is going on between the "law of sin in my members" and the "law of my mind." (Read Rom. 7). We need a power greater than ourselves in order to truly change.

It is the Holy Spirit who takes the Word of God and empowers us to apply it so that it has a transformative affect in our lives. The scriptures are "God-breathed." You could say that the Breath-of-God, who is the Holy Spirit, wrote them. And so the Holy Spirit resonates within us when we read His own words in a way that applies to us personally. "You have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know the truth...His anointing teaches you about all things..." (1John 2:20, 27).

The Holy Spirit is the one who empowers us to be "renewed in the Spirit of our minds" (Eph. 4:23) so that we are "transformed by the renewing of our minds" (Rom. 12:2).

The point of all this? In order to truly change into the people that God intends us to be, we need not only to be students of the Word, but we also must be filled with the Spirit who makes us holy. And so the formula goes: one part Bible + one part self-examination + one part Holy Spirit = transformed life.

How's your journey of transformation going?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Living in Exile

Dave Kinnaman, in his excellent book, You Lost Me, explains three categories of Young Adults (18-29 year-olds) who are leaving the church in higher numbers than previous generations. One of the categories he describes is "exiles." And his description resonates with a lot of my experience, not just with young people, but with people of all ages.

Kinnaman defines exiles as "those who grew up in the church and are now physically or emotionally disconnected in some way, but who also remain energized to pursue God-honoring lives...They feel lost, yet hopeful" (p. 75).

There are many examples of exiles in the scriptures. Daniel stands out.

"The king...brought in young be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king's service" (Dan. 1: 3-5)

Here was a pious Jewish boy, plucked out of his sheltered religious world and plopped down in Babylon. In fact, he is selected for an upwardly-mobile career in the courts of King Nebuchadnezzar. Sounds like so many sheltered Christian kids, home-schooled, or raised in Christian schools, or living in families whose lives revolve around the weekly church calendar (Sunday School, Youth Group, outreaches, missions trips, etc).  Then they are sent off to college, never to darken the door of the church again, perhaps visiting only when they are on holiday with their family--but somehow emotionally distant from church.

Yet, Daniel remains devoted to the worship of Yahweh even in his new pagan surroundings.

"But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine...To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning" (Dan. 1: 8, 17).

Not only that, but Daniel is highly talented and full of favor. So much so that he and his friends rise to the top of their new profession.

"Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds...The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king's service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom" (Dan. 1: 17, 19-20).

But I wonder what the Jewish separatists thought of them working alongside magicians and enchanters? What message does the church send to artists, academics, scientists and musicians as they seek to live out their giftedness in the world? Do we encourage them or cast aspersions on their profession? At least we know that Daniel had three other friends who shared his calling and they could encourage one another.

I remember how important it was to have the support of my fellow Christian students as I attended UCLA (many years ago). How was I to integrate the professional but secular teaching I was receiving with my growing faith? The problem for many young people is that they may be given the subtle message that only a Christianized profession is acceptable. Anything else is suspect.

With that in mind, it is interesting to watch Daniel walk the line of maintaining the integrity of his faith while living out his calling as a "magus" in the Babylonian court.

In John 17, Jesus prayed for his disciples who were being sent into the world, just like He had been sent by the Father. But not so that they would come out of the world or hunker down in a Christian ghetto trying to survive this life, waiting for the rapture. Instead, Jesus prayed that they would be "sanctified" or set apart as holy while they walked out their call IN the world.

Young people need our encouragement as they seek to live as a Christian IN but not OF the world. Rather than hiding their talent in the ground of Christian culture, they want to invest it in the world so that it bears the kind of interest that God intends.

In the world but not of the world. That is the line we all must walk. Daniel did it. Jesus did it. And we are called to do the same.

Is the church helping young people to live out their calling in the world like good disciples of Jesus Christ?