Friday, February 20, 2015

People of the Cross

     Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.  
-Hebrews 13:3 (NIV)

Maybe, like most of the world, you were shocked by the Islamic State beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya. The brutal video, entitled, “A Message Signed in Blood to the Nation of the Cross,” surfaced last week on the Twitter feed of a website that supports IS. As the 21 captives are led to their execution, they are identified by an Arabic caption as “The people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian church.”
     The people of the cross. 
     I hope we see ourselves that way too, though sometimes I fear that perhaps we don’t. I hope we identify ourselves as fellow citizens with those 21 Egyptian men of the Nation of the Cross, though sometimes I fear we identify more as Americans and Westerners, and with whatever denomination of Christianity most appeals to our sensibilities. Christians halfway around the world, affiliated with a denomination that most of us know little about, don’t necessarily feel like family to us. 
     This is one of the many places where the deplorable division of Christianity into little self-contained sects actually ends up compromising the gospel. 
     Coptic Christianity is the ancient, native form of the faith in Egypt. The vast majority of Egyptians from 400-800 AD were Christians, and even after the Muslim conquest the Copts enjoyed a majority until the mid-10th century. Alexandria was an early center of Christianity from at least the early 2nd century, and by the third century Alexandria was second only to Rome in honor in the ancient Christian world. Alexandria became an important center of Christian learning, and Egyptian Christians were central figures in the early church councils of the 4th and 5th centuries.
     Coptic Christians are often discriminated against by local and national government officials in Egypt, and, as we’ve seen graphically this past week, often the targets of hate crimes and assaults, often by Muslim extremists. Many have been forced to flee their homes due to mob violence, and police often arrive after the violence has ended, and when they do arrive coerce the Christians to “reconcile” with their attackers so as to avoid prosecuting the attackers. Coptic Christian women have been the victims of sexual trafficking, forced conversion to Islam, and coerced marriage to Muslim men. 
     As American Christians, we’re sometimes shocked by violence like we saw this past week. It was shocking, of course, but for large portions of The Nation of the Cross, the beheadings were just the latest example of the persecution with which they live and because of which, too often, they die. We forget sometimes that many of our brothers and sisters live as “people of the cross” in more than just a symbolic or representative way. They share with Jesus in carrying their crosses of literal physical and emotional pain, suffering, and death. 
     I’m convicted of the fact this week that I identify much more closely with fellow Americans who are non- or nominally Christian than I do with those brothers who died on that Libyan beach, or with the families and churches that are suffering in their grief. I am a white, Western Christian, and I feel much closer and have much more in common with white, non-Christian Westerners than I do those brown, Eastern Christians. So, while along with the rest of the world I’ve been shocked this week by the violence done to this Christian community, the path of least resistance in the next week or two will be for me to slip back into my old habits of paying more attention to the NCAA basketball playoffs, or what’s happening in Hollywood or how this or that legislation in Washington will affect my standard of living, than what’s going on with other believers in Jesus Christ half a world away.
     I come by that honestly, in some ways. I’ve spent my life among a group of believers that has spent more time talking about how we disagree with believers of other denominations than considering what we have in common. It’s hard for me to identify as brothers and sisters with Christians who differ with me in their practice of baptism, or who understand Communion in a different way. In some ways, I’m wired to hold those believers at arm’s length, at least. 
     But sometimes, I’m forced to conclude, differences in doctrine and practice just don’t amount to much. This is one of those times. 
     The writer of Hebrews reminds us, as he reminded his original readers, to share with brothers and sisters who are suffering, mistreated, and imprisoned. The world in which he lived out his faith was much more like the world in which those 21 Coptic Christians lived, and the world in which their families live. It was, and it is, a world of persecution, a world where social pressure, prejudice, religious extremism, and politics can create the perfect storm for martyrdom.  It wasn’t much like the world in which I live out my faith. 
     A friend of mine last week asked me for advice on choosing a spiritual practice or discipline for the season of Lent. As someone whose practice of Christianity hasn’t included Lent, I was a little taken aback. I don’t think I gave him a very good answer.
     But I’m changing my answer. I think an excellent Lenten practice, for Christians who observe the season and maybe even for those who usually don’t, is to find ways to remember our sisters and brothers in The Nation of the Cross who are truly suffering, truly living as People of the Cross. Surely we can commit some extra time to pray for them. (Voice of the Martyrs has an excellent website to help you in your prayers.) Perhaps we can offer aid to organizations that actively help the persecuted church. Maybe when we’re together with our church families, we can remind them that their brothers and sisters around the world are suffering and dying for their faith. Make a move toward identifying with our suffering fellow members of Christ’s body, and God will make a hundred.
     As those 21 Coptic Christians beheaded on that beach in Libya take their places under Heaven’s altar with the other souls murdered for their faith, we share their cry with them: “How long, Sovereign Lord, Holy and True, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” We share with them as they wait for God’s justice, and we share with them their conviction that the time will come when God will reign, will reward his servants, and destroy those who destroy the earth.

     And with them, People of the Cross all, we cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Friday, February 13, 2015

Shades of Grey?

     Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your  life,  appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 
     Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God  is coming. 
-Colossians 3:1-6 (NIV)

So maybe you’ve heard something about a little movie that’s coming out this weekend.
     The film is based on a book that was a “modest” hit a couple of years ago; a book that nobody read, to the tune of over 100 million copies sold. The book and film are called Fifty Shades of Grey, and they tell the classic all-American love story of boy meets girl — with a liberal and explicit dose of bondage thrown in for good measure. 
     Now, ordinarily I would sort of take an “ignore-it-and-wait-for-it-to-go-away” kind of attitude to this thing. But — 100 million copies sold. Somebody was reading this book. And lots more will likely go see the movie. And, judging by the Facebook posts I saw from people who were reading the book, a good number of those readers and viewers have been and will be Christians; believers who apparently don’t think it’s harmful or a compromise of their witness to the gospel of Jesus to read a book or see a movie that tells the story of a woman who endures violence and objectification at the hands of someone who supposedly loves her. 
     Believers who apparently don’t consider that too many women already live with that reality, and don’t consider it a fantasy at all.
     I get that, through the centuries, the church has  at times been a little on the prudish side regarding sex. I think sex should be affirmed as a good thing, and God given the credit for it. It’s important that married couples enjoy that part of their relationship, and it’s too bad that sometimes the church has been guilty of making believers ashamed of it. It’s too bad that at times we’ve decided that morality demands that we pretend that no one in the church is having sex, that all the church’s babies are virginal conceptions and that none of us understand any of the jokes on TV. It’s too bad that our kids grow up seeing clearly the disconnect between the relative straightforwardness with which sex is treated everywhere else and the way it’s ignored completely at church. 
     I get all that, I do. But, pay attention now — the way to fix that isn’t with a rebound reaction to the other extreme, where we embrace wholeheartedly the validity of almost every perversion of sexuality as a lifestyle choice and subject of fantasy. We can affirm the goodness and even holiness of sex without extending that affirmation to every distortion of sex that human beings create.    
     And, make no mistake, the Fifty Shades phenomenon and its like is a distortion. The problem is not that Christians are repressed, or that the human body is dirty, or even that, ahem, creative sex is inherently sinful. The problem lies in twisting something that God intended for intimacy, joy, and pleasure into just another tool with which human beings can control, manipulate, and use each other for our own pleasure. And then packaging that distorted, twisted thing as fantasy for the masses, who imagine that it just might make their lives as exciting and satisfying as they think their lives should be. 
     It isn’t harmless; when distortions of God’s intent for human sexuality become mainstream and accepted even by believers, it has emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical consequences. 
     Note that sex itself doesn’t make the list of “what belongs to the earthly nature” that Paul says has to go. Sex doesn't belong on that list, because sex as God intended it is an affirmation of the goodness of humanity. But sexual immorality and impurity have to go. So do lust and evil desires and the greed for more and different that so often in our world has twisted sex into an unrecognizable caricature of itself. When sex becomes more about what we can get than what we can give, when we become preoccupied with more and different, when it creates pain and damage instead of joy and intimacy, when our sexual lives are mediated through the fantasies of others, then it’s been co-opted by our earthly natures and creates a distortion that has no place in lives raised with Christ or hearts set on things above. 

     People who know the Lord should know better. We should. We shouldn’t see the world exactly like our non-Christian friends, and we shouldn’t see human sexuality like our non-Christian friends. In Jesus, we’ve been raised from death to life, and we’ve been raised to a new mindset. Our lives are taken up with Jesus and his promises, our thoughts and aspirations elevated. 
     What that means, sometimes, is that desires and passions have to be denied — “put to death,” in Paul’s colorful language. Folks in his day had their own versions of 50 Shades, and they needed to know, as we do, that those were distortions of what God had created. And they needed to know, as we do, that the Christian response to such distortions is to say no to the parts of ourselves that might be drawn to such things, and to instead set our hearts on what we’ve been given in Jesus. 
     I can confidently guarantee that seeing Fifty Shades, or reading the book, won’t do anything positive for you, or your marriage, or your walk with the Lord, or your witness to the gospel. If you can’t imagine the Lord sitting beside you while you read or watch, then find something else to read or watch. If that’s not enough, ask yourself if you would want your daughter in an abusive, manipulative relationship, or if you’d want your son to treat a woman that way. Abuse and violence against women shouldn’t be set dressing for Hollywood-friendly porn, and believers should stand against that by their disengagement. 
     I’m reminded of Proverbs 5:18-19: “may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. / A loving doe, a graceful deer /may her breasts satisfy you always, / may you ever be intoxicated with her love.” Despite the gender-specific language, that text reminds believers, men and women alike, to rejoice in what God has given us. No other person, and certainly not another person’s fantasies, will ever satisfy us. What will is choosing to thank God for our spouses and take joy in one another, and in our lives together. And, finally, to know that our highest joy — joy immeasurable in its scope and variety — is to be found in Christ alone. 

     Much more than fifty shades. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Followers and Fans

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 
-Matthew 16:24-26 (NIV)

I’m not typically a big fan of Bill Maher. He’s no doubt a smart guy, but he comes across as a little arrogant for my taste most of the time. Not to mention that he’s pretty hostile toward religion in general, and Christianity in particular. In fairness, though, his criticisms of religion mainly have to do with the hypocrisy he perceives in many people who call themselves religious.
        In a recent episode of his show Real Time, Maher takes on the findings of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that the majority of  white evangelicals — 62% — believe that torture of suspected terrorists can “often” or “sometimes” be justified. (Against 49% of the total population of the US) Maher takes off on about a 4-minute rant that “if you’re a Christian who supports killing your enemies and torture, you have to come up with a new name for yourself.” He points out that “capping thine enemy — it’s not what Jesus would do. It’s what Shug Knight would do.” 
     Maher says that Martin Luther King can call himself a Christian “because he actually practiced loving his enemies,” and that Ghandi “was so … Christian he was Hindu.” He goes on to say that non-violence was “kinda Jesus’ trademark,” and, “to not follow that part of it is kinda like joining Greenpeace and hating whales.”
     Maher admits that his favorite new government program is “surprising violent religious zealots in the middle of the night and shooting them in the face,” but that it’s OK for him to say that because he’s not a Christian — “just like most Christians,” he claims. “If you ignore every single thing Jesus commanded you to do, you’re not a Christian,” he says. “You’re just auditing. You’re not Christ’s followers, you’re just fans.”(You can watch the video here, if you want to. Just keep in mind that the show is on HBO and that Maher’s language will quite probably offend you.)
     I don’t think non-violence and non-resistance necessarily work as foreign policy. But as a follower of Jesus I don’t think I should be excited about war, and torture, and targeted assassination. Even when it’s in the name of my country of birth, I don’t think I should feel vindication when a missile strikes its target or another face is crossed off the FBIs most-wanted list. Few of us, probably, would pull a trigger or launch a missile or interrogate a prisoner ourselves, even if we had the chance. But is it anything like Jesus to rejoice over it, to revel in the destruction of an enemy of the United States, or democracy, or freedom?
     None of that is to attack those who do pull the triggers or launch the missiles. I’m sure the weight of those decisions, for most of them, is not borne easily. I guess I want to just agree with Maher’s statement: “If you ignore every single thing Jesus commanded you to do, you’re not a Christian. You’re just auditing. You’re not Christ’s followers, you’re just fans.”
     Like I said, I’m not a fan of Maher, but in this case he’s more right than wrong. Believers have a long history of cherry-picking Jesus’ words, appropriating the ones we like for ourselves while explaining away the ones we don’t like. Crusaders knew that Jesus taught that his followers should pray for their enemies; they just apparently thought they could do that from behind swords, spears, and shields. Modern American believers know that Jesus cautioned against the love of money, and told his followers to give to those in need; we just convince ourselves that the people to whom we could give are in need because of some moral defect in them, and that the best thing we can do for them is make them stand on their own. We convince ourselves that we don’t really love all the stuff we’ve accumulated, we just need it to pay our mortgages and send our kids to college, and don’t question the lifestyles we’ve chosen for ourselves.
    It’s a temptation for us in every generation to jettison the words of Jesus that are inconvenient for the times we live in. In America during the two World Wars, pacifism was a dangerous position. It was considered unpatriotic. It’s dangerous today to apply Jesus’ attitude toward sinners in the heavily-politicized issue of gay rights; not difficult to know that Jesus loved sinners, and called them friends, but difficult to live that out without being accused of compromising the gospel. It’s just as difficult to take seriously Jesus’ words about sinning no more in a world where words like that can be called religious bigotry or hate speech. 
     And yet it’s exactly those words of Jesus that are most inconvenient for our times, words about money and sex and love and power and revelation, that we most need to hear. The convenient words are easy to hear, comfortable to follow. It’s the ones that are hard, that force us to feel the tension between ourselves as we are and ourselves as Jesus wants us to be, that make us decide if we want to follow him, or if we just want to audit his class.
     The thing is, we run from those encounters sometimes. We go out of our way to avoid hearing those difficult, inconvenient, words and satisfy ourselves instead with the easy ones. We resent it when someone points out what looks like hypocrisy in our lives, even if they don’t accuse us to our faces. We defend ourselves. We rush to interpret Jesus’ words in a way that takes the sting out of them. We justify our prejudices, greed, and pettiness, cloak them with religious vocabulary and religious actions. We turn angry words on those who would point out our inconsistencies. 
     In doing so, we forget that Jesus promised — promised — that following him would mean our deaths. It would be a life of denying and executing those parts of our natures that don’t easily bend to his will, and that any efforts to preserve our lives untouched and unbothered would mean losing the lives that he wants to give us. And we forget that the one who calls us to this life does so as someone who has carried his own cross, given up his own life. It shouldn’t surprise us when he asks us to do the same.

     And yet it does. But may we be followers indeed, whose lives of love and sacrifice force even skeptics and unbelievers to admit our consistency and credibility. May we walk with him and follow his teaching even when it’s hard, even when it costs us something of our lives. And may we never doubt that in walking with him, we will gain the true life that he wants to share with us.