Tag Archives: American Culture

What’s in Your Future?

Your culture sees what you’ve been; God sees what you can be. Jim Denison

I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11

The words of Jeremiah to people in exile because of their sin stand shoulder to shoulder with Jim Denison’s statement which closes a post about the recent leak of a tape made by Monica Lewinsky. The tape is being circulated in one of the media’s endless exploitation of the willingness of the public to be titillated by public immorality. Nobody knows or cares where Monica Lewinsky is now, and the media neither knows nor cares how she may feel about this manipulative use of her story. The point of the publicity about the tape is to stir the cultural pot once more as Hillary Clinton poises herself to try again for the presidency.

The cultural climate today makes it clear that the behavior of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in the past means nothing. The dominant theme of the culture is that each person should figure out what sexual behavior makes him or her happy and then should behave that way as often as possible. The culture won’t view the tape through a moral lens; it will view the tape through an entertainment lens. The culture does not care if two consenting adults engage in sexual behavior that some people consider to be adulterous and wanton. The culture only cares if it is something fun to talk about, especially if it permits the culture to belittle people who do view the tape and the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky through a moral lens.

In short, the culture is happy to gossip about anything and everything. The culture enjoys gossiping about the fact that some people find the Clinton/Lewinsky relationship shocking and immoral, even as it enjoys smirking at Lewinsky for trying to resurrect the relationship Bill Clinton discarded when it became inconvenient. The culture is entertained by issues that hurt people. The culture happily dissects people and relationships, no matter the circumstances, and after it has put the people through a wringer to extract the last full measure of public comedy, it scornfully flings the remaining dregs into the deep gloom of yesterday’s news. As Jim Denison says so plainly, all the culture remembers is who you were. The culture neither knows nor cares who you are or who you might be.

Jeremiah spoke to people who felt like yesterday’s discarded and forgotten news. They had been crushed in battle with a powerful empire. Their capital city, including their temple, had been violated and destroyed. The people had been transplanted to strange lands, and they not only felt forgotten by God, but they felt hopeless that they could ever get his attention again. Jeremiah brought them a message that said, “God certainly knows what you have been, but God also knows what you can be.”

When I was small, a spanking was still an accepted punishment for the misbehavior of a child. When my brother and I got in the habit of snacking after school on food our mother had told us not to eat, she eventually discovered what we were doing – what made us think that she would not notice that the food had disappeared? Our family’s tight budget meant that what we regarded as a minor error was a major loss, and our behavior called for a major punishment. Each of us received a spanking with Mother’s hairbrush. What I remember most about that experience was what happened next.

After the spanking, I was in tears, more from the shame than the pain, which was minor. I stood up rubbing my eyes and sobbing. When I turned around, my mother stood there sobbing, too. She put her arms around me and said, “I hate doing this. Please don’t ever act like this again.” Then we both cried together. My mother did not want to dwell on this past failure; my mother wanted me to look forward and do better. She had a hopeful view of what I might become.

That is how God feels when he must punish our bad behavior. That is how he felt when he allowed Israel to suffer the consequences of idolatry and wicked behavior. He hated seeing Israel dragged out of the Promised Land, the land he had given to his chosen people. He hated seeing the temple destroyed. He hated the misery the Israelites endured as oppressed captives in a foreign land. Nevertheless, he also hated the way the Israelites had pretended to worship him while actually giving all their loyalty to idols. The Israelites did not simply abandon God for idols. Rather, they pretended to worship him while giving first place to the idols. Rejection was bad, but the deceit was worse.

My mother hated spanking me, but she hated the lie my brother and I perpetrated by eating the forbidden food. Even though she had had plans for that food, it really wasn’t the loss of the food that hurt; it was the deception. Our disobedience was bad, but our sneakiness was worse.

I don’t remember much else about that day, but I will never forget my mother’s tear-stained face as she said, “Please don’t ever act like this again.” God felt that way about the Israelites, too. My mother knew I was capable of better behavior. God knew that Israel was capable of better behavior. When I fail God and mess up and make him simultaneously angry and ashamed of me, God nevertheless still loves me and continues to have plans for me. My mother didn’t throw me out on the street after I made a mistake; she held me close and continued to believe that I had it in me to be a better person.

How do I know that God sees what I can be? I know it because I know what he saw on the cross as Jesus died. Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?” and the reason is that all my sins, along with all the sins of the world, covered him at that moment. God looked down at the cross and all he could see there was my sin. When Jesus died, all my sin was washed away in his shed blood. Now when God looks at me, he sees that shed blood. Because I am washed in the blood of Christ, I can become what he created me to be. The gifts God gave me at creation cannot be rubbed out by my sin, but the blood of Christ does “rub out” or wash away my sin. Because God saw my sin on Jesus when he hung on the cross, God can’t see my sin when he looks at me. My next-door neighbor may be blinded by my sin so that she can’t see me, or my boss may be blinded by my sin so that he can’t see me, but God doesn’t see my sin anymore.

Because of the shed blood of Christ on the cross, God says to me as he said to Israel in exile, “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11

Do not despair. God still sees a future for you.

 

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The Word is truth

Sunday’s readings Acts 1:15-17. 21-26   Psalm 1    1 John 5:9-13     John 17:6-19

 Recently news was received from the tiny country of Bhutan, high in the Himalayas. The US doesn’t get much news from that part of the world, and this news was not published in the New York Times or even on the Drudge Report. It arrived via a newsletter from OpenDoors.com. The news stated that Christians were hopeful they could continue meeting in private homes while they continue to attempt to be classified as a legitimate religion in Bhutan. In this remote Himalayan country, the official religion is Buddhism. Bhutan is classified as a kingdom, but it is transitioning to a form of democracy which already includes a legislature. Early in the process of learning democracy the national legislature passed a law called The National Religious Organizations Act. Religions not named in that act are considered to be unlawful. Furthermore, no religion, even presumably the lawful ones, may engage in proselytizing, particularly if some inducement is offered to converts. Christians have difficulty making their case for legitimacy due to allegations that they offer a reward to people who agree to convert. There was no hint in the news article what the alleged reward is, but it may be that the promise of eternal life is deemed by the government to be an inducement.

From the comfortable vantage point of the USA it is difficult to imagine a country where religions must be recognized by the government in order to be allowed to exist. This problem is more common than Western Christians realize. In Africa and Asia it is not at all uncommon for there to be strict regulations for religions. In our country we can call join any religion we like, or none at all, and we meet wherever and whenever we wish. We are free to publicly argue all sorts of religious question among ourselves. Christians get upset when people want to stop using the greeting “Merry Christmas,” but that complaint looks quite lame compared to arrest, imprisonment and even torture, which are common in many countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian. We can hardly imagine that there are at least 50 countries in the world where it isn’t always safe to be a Christian.

Jesus could imagine it. He knew it was coming. In fact, the night before Jesus was scourged nearly to death and nailed to a cross to finish the job, he prayed for the Christians in Bhutan, and Laos and Eritrea and China and North Korea and all the other countries where simply claiming to be a Christian is risky business.

Today’s gospel is only a small selection from John 17, a chapter sometimes labeled “Christ’s High Priestly Prayer.” Our reading does not include the words that made the prayer so far-reaching in scope, verse 20 where Jesus said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Facing misery and grief none of us can really imagine, Jesus paused to pray for the disciples he already knew would abandon him in his hour of need, and for all the people who would be their descendants in the family of faith, including you and me.

We need his prayers. We may not be at risk of arrest if our neighbors find out we are Christians, but we have received the same commission the disciples received, and the pressure from the world around us to shut up about it is immense. On this fateful night Jesus told his disciples that they could expect to be hated, and he did not pray that they would not be hated. That is our kind of prayer. We pray to be rescued. We want to prevent bad things from happening. We hope God will put up a shield around us so we don’t get hurt. It is almost shocking to read that Jesus did not pray that we be rescued. Jesus prayed instead that we be sanctified.

Jesus knew that we would face personal insults, cultural rejection and both cultural and state persecution. Yet he prayed that we would meet our attackers with sanctification. He asked us to be dedicated and consecrated and blessed, but he did not ask for us to escape our enemies.

The prayer for our sanctification builds on his words to the disciples. Jesus had given the disciples the words his Father gave to him. The disciples treasured those words the way the Psalmist in today’s reading treasured Torah. Jesus had promised that when the disciples were dragged away by their persecutors the Holy Spirit would remind them of those words and give them the right words to speak their testimony. The disciples later wrote down Jesus’ words and deeds and we have them for our nourishment in the Bible. Since Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for them, the words the Holy Spirit gives us in the time of need are weapons of love and truth. Jesus prayed that his followers under threat would be sanctified, and the history of the church confirms that this is what happens. The stories of the martyrs who suffered and died for the faith over the past 2000 years are clear evidence that the persecuted are blessed by the Holy Spirit with powerful testimony, they are consecrated to love and service to Christ above all other loyalties, but very seldom are they rescued.

In Bhutan, Christians are under threat from both the culture and the state. Yet, scorned culturally and persecuted by their neighbors and by the government, they continue to live their faith and give their testimonies. We can be thankful that we do not need to worship in secret and hide our religion when we apply for work or buy a house. We can be thankful that nobody is likely to take our Bibles away from us if we show them in public. The story of Bhutan Christians ought to inspire us to emulate their courage when we are the object of scathing insults on the internet, or when our employers forbid us to say, “Merry Christmas.” Jesus prayed for us to be strong in the world and to be prepared for its hatred, and to be ready with a response that is loving and truthful. May we live in deep relationship with Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit in order to be ready to respond to the onslaught of cultural and legal attacks on Christianity with a sanctified testimony.

 

The New Normal

 

A bible from 1859.
A Bible from 1859 Image via Wikipedia

I have commented before that I observe a massive cultural change in the USA. Our country was founded by people who believed in God and considered the Bible to be a holy text. They attended Christian churches and sang Christian hymns. When they spoke, they exercised a level of restraint on their speech that seems quaint to twenty-first century ears. In eighteenth-century Boston, nobody would have considered it cute for a seventh-grader to shout “Oh my God!” at the sight of a beautiful necklace. Local, state and national leaders in the early days of this country were expected to behave respectfully toward Christians and to live by Christian standards, an expectation that occasioned little concern on the part of the leaders who pretty much accepted those standards in daily life anyway.

It happened this way, because the vast majority of the people who came to the east coast of North America came from countries where Christianity was the state religion. Even if they came in protest at the particular church the state had chosen, it wasn’t because of a desire to worship a different God.

As a result, our culture and our cultural expectations were shaped by Christian teaching. In many instances, those expectations actually perverted Christian teaching into little more than a cute little proverb for schoolchildren to learn. Nonetheless, Christian ideas and Christian words shaped the culture. Even as immigrants from around the world came to our shores, they, too, soon absorbed the cultural norms. Until very recently, both immigrants and American citizens assumed that immigrants would assimilate. We didn’t expect them to abandon their festivals or even their religions, but we did expect them to speak English and dress in clothing that we considered normal. The immigrants likewise expected to become part of this nation when they came here. They did not expect to bring their old country with them, even though they continued to protect their heritage in festivals and holidays of their own. They expected that when in this country, they would become more like the people who lived here.

Even though the civil rights demonstrations alleged to be about integrating the culture, its outcome has been to divide the culture in ways I don’t believe the original leaders ever considered. It is the subject for another post to examine the issues of language and law that have steadily widened the rift between the many subcultures in this country. For today, I simply observe that it has happened. Rather than become more thoroughly integrated, more deeply unified in cultural and political values, our nation has become steadily more divided. Every subculture presses strongly for pre-eminence, and failing that, it demands equality. The word “equality” has become a weapon, not a unifier. In the service of this conflict, the word “diversity” stands right beside “equality” as a weapon of division.

The bottom line is that the culture that dominated life in America for almost two hundred years is disintegrating. You may have your own ideas about how it happened or why it happened. You may think that it is broken and needs to be fixed. Nevertheless, no matter how you look at it, our culture today is not the Norman Rockwell culture many people imagine to be the bedrock of American life. I believe that his state of affairs will persist into the foreseeable future. For good or ill, this is the world we live in.

Christians need to recognize this truth, because we cannot continue to live by the same expectations that worked in 1950. We cannot assume that people respect us for being Christians. The new normal in American culture is the idea that religion is something to keep locked up in houses of worship and not dragged out into the streets. If we Christians want to continue to be free to live and speak our faith, we need to recognize the realities. In order to deal with them, we must remember what Jesus promised us.

As Jesus ascended to heaven after his resurrection, he sent his followers out to share the good news and baptize believers into the kingdom. Knowing that in the Roman Empire, this work would meet with cultural and political resistance, much as it does in the contemporary USA, Jesus promised, “I will be with you.” It is important to know that when we are living our faith, swimming against the cultural current, our Lord and Savior in the person of the Holy Spirit is with us. That is comforting, but it isn’t the only thing we should remember. We must also remember that Jesus promised us we would endure persecution, resistance, and hatred, and we must absolutely remember that he told us the answer to all of Satan’s assaults on us was love. The Christ who asks us to serve him faithfully says that our defensive weapon against people Satan uses to persecute us is love.

I encounter a lot of people online who really scorn Christian faith. They scorn God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, churches, and Christians in general. Some are respectfully resistant, but others trash Christians and their faith in words I would neither speak nor print. We must expect this, because the new normal in American culture is not a Christian standard for behavior.

For those of us accustomed to the general accommodation of Christianity by the culture, this state of affairs is hard to take. We are tempted to feel hurt personally. We must remember that Jesus said the world would hate us, because it hated him first. Our job is not to respond in kind. We don’t serve Christ by whining that things used to be different. It won’t help anything to accuse people of a war on Christians. We must, instead, do exactly what Jesus told us to do – be salt and light in the world. The Satanic way to deal with rejection is to act out, to take the initiative and pound the opposition into submission. God has been enduring rejection since the day Eve rejected him and bit into the forbidden fruit, and his way to deal with it is to love us even more. If we want to be like God, we, too, must simply love our enemies even more than they hate us. That is how we live with the new normal.