Monday, October 29, 2012

Christian Citizenship 101

Whenever I address the subject of the kingdom of God with almost-Christians, I realize most of our countrymen are not even remotely aware that Jesus’ central teaching was about God’s kingdom: “ ‘The time has come,’ Jesus said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Change direction and believe this good news!’” (Mark 1:15). If they are aware of the concept, they seem completely oblivious to how crucial the kingdom of God is for ordering their lives. Instead, they repeat a dubious mantra that goes something like one of these: “We have to be active in voting and campaigning to keep our nation Christian,” or “We need to take our nation back for God,” or “It is our responsibility to be good citizens.” I agree with this last point, but ask this: where does our citizenship lie? This is not an idle question, but crucial for serious followers of Jesus.

“Our citizenship is in heaven,” writes the apostle Paul to the Philippians, “and we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). The word Paul uses that we translate “citizenship” in English (politeuma in Greek) had a very proud and stark meaning for the city of Philippi. When the Romans invaded Greece 60 BCE, the Philippians betrayed their fellow Greeks by aiding the Romans in a quick occupation of their country. As a reward, everyone born in the city of Philippi was considered the same as if they had been born in Rome itself, with all the rights and privileges that go along with being a Roman citizen. It is hard to overstate what a privilege it was to be born in Philipi. They lived in Greece, but their citizenship, their politeuma, was in Rome. Being born in Philippi was like winning the lottery. Being born in the United States is a lot like winning the lottery, too. We, too, have a lot to treasure in being citizens of the United States. But…

When Paul tells the Philippian followers of Jesus that their citizenship is in heaven, he is simply noting what happened to New Testament Christians when they were baptized into Jesus: they died to this world kingdom—and to their obligation to it—and they were given new life as citizens of the kingdom of God. This is what it means to claim, “Jesus is my Lord.” It means you recognize Him as king of kings, and you recognize your exclusive loyalty is to Him as king by submitting to His rule, His authority, His kingdom.

As a result, to become a follower of Jesus should really cost something in America, as it did in Philippi. We should subordinate our American citizenship to our kingdom obligation. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” and our primary loyalty has shifted to King Jesus. Once we really get this, we begin to understand why Christians from everywhere else consider our pledge of allegiance to the flag to sound like a form of idolatry. That is not easy for me to write as an Eagle Scout. But, as a devoted follower of Jesus I recognize that I am a citizen of a different kingdom.

What then is the civic responsibility of followers of Jesus in our country? Because we are Kingdom citizens, our role here is as ambassadors to America: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God!” (2 Corinthians 5:20). If you read the preceding verses in that chapter, Kingdom Christians’ role here is not to “keep America Christian” or “to take America back for God,” but to appeal to our countrymen that they be reconciled to God prior to his return, the second coming of Jesus. When He returns—the Scriptures repeat again and again—the opportunity to be reconciled to Him will be past. Our job, now and urgently, is to make an appeal as ambassadors from our homeland in heaven, from where our savior is coming soon.

“Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate His rule with trembling” (Psalm 2:10-11).

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dissecting the question, "Where do you go to church?"

Do you ever get asked this question? I do, and will answer it below. When I get asked this question, it is usually for one of three reasons: 1. They like or don't like what I am saying about Jesus, the Kingdom and the Bible, and they are trying to place it into context as "okay" or "not okay" by learning what church I go to. Guilty or innocent by association, I guess. 2. They want to invite me to their church. (It happened recently sitting at a sidewalk cafe eating lunch--they asked, gave me the card and invited me to "Relevant Church"--really, that is its name). 3. They are concerned for my soul because there's no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christian, "a log cannot burn by itself, and the fire goes out," and Hebrews 10:25 tells us to go to church, doesn't it? Yes and no. Here is what Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us to do: "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Hebrews 10:24, 25 NIV) There are three parts to this command/teaching: 1. Spend time strategizing how to motivate each other to offer practical care for each other ("consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds") 2. Continue to meet together, 3. For the purpose of coming alongside and encouraging one another. Interestingly, the word for "encouraging" is the same word used for what the Holy Spirit does (parakaleĊ). Because of the Gospel of John's usage of this same term, the Holy Spirit is sometimes called the Paraklete. So to paraphrase, here is what we are told to do: We should spend time planning how to spark one another to loving acts and good deeds, and gather together to come alongside and act like little Holy Spirits encouraging and motivating each other. This is quite different than what happens in many church buildings much of the time. When this command is re-interpreted "Go to a church building" we are no longer obeying this command nor are we doing the Jesus-stuff. It is quite religious to go to the church building once a week, fellowship with the back of someone's head, stand up, sit down, kneel, listen to the pastor/priest and band/choir, but this is not what Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us to do. We can go to a church building and still not do church. That's why there is not a Scripture that asks us, "Where do you go to church?" Instead, The Good Book calls us to remember that we ARE the church, as Paul writes, "Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it" (1 Corinthians 12:27 NIV). In that chapter Paul lays out how we are interconnected and need one another because we are joined together as one connected living tissue as the Body of Christ. I can't "go to church" because I am the church. I can't go to Brian Dodd, I am Brian Dodd. But, I can and should focus on encouraging other followers of Jesus face to face, and I need them to do that for me. We need to focus on it, think about it, meet together to do it, and keep on doing it. Do I have to go to a church building and attend a religious ceremony to do this? No, and those who do often only follow this important teaching when they meet elsewhere as a small group, or Sunday school class, or two or three for a breakfast meeting. Ironically, going to the church building can have nothing to do with being/doing church, and may actually distract from it. Jesus says he is there where two or three gather in his name (but some people think Jesus doesn't show up until there are two or three hundred or two or three thousand :-) This is why so many lack the sense of the presence of Jesus in their daily lives--they think someone else has to make Jesus present for them in a religious ceremony. In fact, He is already present and reveals himself more in the face to face encouragement gathering. In fact, WHERE we do church may have nothing to do with how well we do church. The earliest Christians could not go to a church building (none of those until the 4th century, and for many reasons not a time of Christianity most conforming to the teaching of Jesus). They did church while walking on the road, in their jail cells, in the catacombs fleeing arrest, around the dinner table in someone's home. So, now my answer. Where do I go to church? I "went to church" in the Scriptural sense this last week many times in different locations. At one restaurant with Carl, and another with Vern. On the phone with Gabe. Via video Skype with Carlos. At my breakfast table with my wife. Yesterday and today with five people part of the time in their apartment, part of the time in their car, and some of the time eating outside at a restaurant together. That may sound like a lot of "church going," but I needed that much encouragement! Jesus said He is present wherever two or three gather in His name, and I experienced His presence these times. We can meet and encourage each other on a golf cart, hiking in the woods, camping on the beach or by going to someone's house for dinner. It can also happen in a church building, but you must do it. No one else can do it for you.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why are American Christians so afraid these days?

I hear a lot of fear and fear-mongering coming from people who call themselves Christians these days. I read it in "official" pronouncements and I hear fear in day to day conversations where "responsible" talk of self-preservation is thinly veiled worry. I overhear fear on Facebook, in emails and in the middle of daily transactions. They tend to attach their fear to the coming Fall elections, prophesying doom if we reelect the Muslim instead of the Mormon. Brainless, yes, but "fear is the mind killer," says a warrior in that memorable line from Dune. 

Why are Christians so fearful these days? I ask you that question with a open heart. Why do you think? Here are some of my answers: 
(1) They say the words but don't really trust or understand that "Jesus is Lord" means we can remain in full serenity because the Good Shepherd has it all in hand, and His kingdom cannot be shaken. 
(2) They have confused the two kingdoms. Because they believe their well-being is tied to the fortunes of THIS kingdom, they cannot see the forest through the trees. They are convinced that their geopolitical worry and material-economic analysis is rational and crucial and determines their future happiness. In their confusion they have lost their peace, the "peace that is way beyond all comprehension," as the Good Book calls it. 
(3) They are being manipulated by false shepherds who use the shears of fear to keep fleecing them for personal gain. Fear is the stick these battered sheep are driven with. "If you don't vote for ______, all hell will break loose." "If you don't give more money, the sky or roof or something bad is going to fall and hit you." "If you don't seclude yourself and put up a wall around yourself, bad things are coming..." Whatever happened to confidence in the saving power and loving care of Jesus? Whatever happened to, "Greater is He who is in you, than he who is in the world?" 

The fear-focus of contemporary Christians is in stark contrast to the example the first Christians set for us. When the first Christians confessed, "Jesus is Lord!" they were making a radical claim that was politically confrontational. They were confronting and denying Roman power and the control of Caesar who demanded all confess, "Caesaris Kurios!" -- Caesar is Lord. Roman regional leaders knew the moment they heard these upstart losers call Jesus "Lord" that this was political treason and these traitors had to be killed. The Romans even believed they were atheists, because they denied the divinity of the true and living god, Caesar. They were usually given a chance to confess Caesar is Lord and deny Jesus. It became so common to be executed for "witnessing to Jesus" this way that the word "witness" had its meaning changed to "die for Jesus" (martyr, matures in Greek).

You would have thought that would have been the end of Christianity. But the opposite was true. The more they killed these followers of Jesus, the more others came to believe, too, that the real king is Jesus and that Caesar's power was fake, temporary and fading. "The blood of the martyrs is the seedbed of the church" they realized, as they saw the Christian movement rapidly expand like dandelions in the spring wind.

Why did watching Christians get killed make other people want to become Christians too? The answer is straightforward, I think. In the face of withering and crushing Roman violence and intimidation there was something very obvious about these Christians: they had clarity and were unafraid. They did not fear what any person could do to them because Jesus the king of all time and space had kicked death in the teeth. He showed them that life is not about just wearing a meat suit. He demonstrated that the second death is what we should be worried about, not the first death. For them, there was a clarity that life on planet earth is a tale of two kingdoms: THIS kingdom (which is dust and chaff before the winds of time) and God's Kingdom (which is solid, stable and cannot be shaken). Through this lens they could see past the shimmering materialistic mirage that keeps so many in bondage and fear, and they would say things like, "Do not focus on what you can see but on what you can't see. What you see is temporary and fading, but what you don't see is permanent and everlasting" (2 Corinthians 4:18). They said it because they felt it deeply and were convinced it was true. They were filled with a strange peace and strong love from following Jesus. Hard to argue with strong feelings, I have found.

One of the Tricksters cons pulled regularly on Christians is to make them swallow that there is such a thing as "being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good." The opposite is the case on the ground right now. We are so earthly minded we are no earthly good. We have gone native. We somehow think the King and the Kingdom hinge precariously upon which party and puppet control the government of the United States. This petty fearfulness is small-minded, and reflects that we do not know the voice of the Good Shepherd, His character of trustworthiness and His rule (that allows for this temporary but soon to end rebellion).

To all the Freddy Fear-mongers I say, The Lord is my shepherd--I shall not want. The Lord is my king, I shall not fear. America is not the light to the nations--Jesus is. All my hope is in Him--I shall not fear, and my hope will not be disappointed.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What Does Your Faith Rest Upon?

My friend, Gabe Landes, a State Farm agent in Ohio and former religious professional, has urged me to tell the story of what happened to me in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet satellite, and what I learned from it (okay, truth be told, what I un-learned from it). If you don't like long stories, skip to the bottom and read 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 and you'll get the moral of the story. But, Gabe thinks you should read this comedy of errors first.

In the middle of the three hurricanes that swept over our Florida home in the summer of 2004, I went as a member of a mission team to Central Asia with a small group of Swiss and German Christians that I hardly knew. I also had never heard of Kyrgyzstan, did not know the language (languages, as it turned out), had no understanding of the culture and history, and daily pretty much didn't know where we were going or who we would be meeting with. I had led a few mission trips myself (and had been a church pastor and seminary professor), so believe me when I tell you that this is not how I believed "it should be done." Yet, here I was.

By the time we got to the historic city of Osh in the South (down near Afghanistan and Tajikistan, West of China), I was in full bumbling stumbling idiot mode, merely along for the ride. I enjoyed the sensations of tasting new food, seeing new people, hearing new music and languages, and the people were kind and friendly. But I was a cliche for what experienced missionaries know: "short term" missions do the short term missionaries the most good, not the people they came to "help." But God is not restricted to our limitations.

So sheep-like I walked with our team and some locals one morning through the Osh market along the river running through the city to the town hall where the city leaders met. Along the way I was jolted by loud wailing coming from the nearby hill, and was told that it was an ancient high place where they worshipped idols (note to self: open idolatry in a 97% Muslim country?). We came into the city hall around 10 a.m., a 40 x 50 meeting room with large pictures of Khrushchev, Gorbachev and all the former Soviet rulers lining the walls. When I asked why all the pictures were still there after the collapse of the Soviet Union I was told the city fathers were afraid the Soviets would come back and didn't want to offend them (note to self: huh?). The group of fifty people gathered that morning were raging humanity-- women, men, elderly, lame--and a strong smell of vodka pervaded the room.

I had no idea why they had come, but the team leader decided they were the wrong sort and told me he was going to "train the leaders," which meant leaving with the handful of Jesus-followers who were there to train them in a different location. (Isn't that what we Westerners think? "If we train the leaders, we'll get more fruit." This was one lesson I was unlearning.) He told me that I was supposed to stay and speak to the group. Then he and the other Christians left.

Venera, my young translator, said to me, "Brother Brian, shall we begin?" I had heard her story the night before. When she decided to follow Jesus, her father took her to the center of their village and had beat her unconscious. When she came to, he was standing over her and she said to him, "I love you, father. But I will always follow Jesus." She was 20 years old and stood 5 feet on her tiptoes, but towered over me in courage. I asked for a moment, prayed a desperate prayer (something eloquent like, "Help!"), and then a sense of peace came over me as I felt prompted to open my Bible to Acts chapter 2 as I stood to address the group.

As I began to speak, a woman in the front started yelling and then she stopped. As she shouted out in a language I did not recognize I thought, "This isn't the weirdest thing that is happening today," as I stared at Khrushchev's ominous portrait, heard the idol worshippers wailing, and smelled the vodka. I didn't understand how important her yelling was until several days later, but they all knew what it meant. Immediately the whole group became quiet and focused on my every word.

I spoke to them about Jesus, and how he was wrongly sentenced to death for crimes He did not commit and was crucified on a cross. At that moment, in walked Davilet, late to the meeting. He had become a follower of Jesus in a Tajik prison, and I had heard his story the night before. He came to understand that Jesus had died for his crimes and sins, and paid the penalty Davilet could never fully pay himself. I felt prompted to ask Davilet to come and tell his story, which he did.

I am not sure what he said because he spoke in one language and Venera translated it into another for the next 20 minutes. But as he was finishing he got tears in his eyes. I looked around the room and many of them had tears, too. I looked back to Davilet, and he was passing the ball back to me. Not knowing what to do, I looked down at my Bible and there in Acts 2 I read silently that Peter's message had cut his hearers to the heart, and they asked him "What must we do to be saved?" Without knowing what Davilet had said, I supposed that it had cut many to the heart. I asked them, "Do you want to know what you must do to be saved?" Many of them nodded their heads (actually, it seemed like all of them did but I can't say that for sure).

So I told them about receiving Jesus' death as a gift of payment for their wrongdoings, trusting that He rose from the dead and was with them now through His Holy Spirit. They needed now to devote themselves to do whatever Jesus, their daily boss, directed, and trust Him in all things in life, death and salvation. I glanced down at my Bible. Acts 2 said that many were baptized that day. So, I looked up and said, "Everyone who wants to be saved by Jesus, follow me to be baptized."

I began walking outside with Davilet and Venera and asked Davilet if he had ever baptized anyone and he said no. I explained to him that if anyone came, I would baptized the first one or two so he could see, and then I would help him baptize any others, if they came. At the same time I caught a strange look in Venera's eye so I asked her, "Is this okay?" She smiled and said, "If we die, we die!" I didn't really register what she meant, nor did I realize the physical violence Jesus-followers here could face. (It wasn't that I was brave like Venera. I just didn't know what I didn't know). Many of the people were baptized that day, most of them by Davilet. How many? 25 or 40? I am not sure since I wasn't counting. There were 25-40 who came the next day to the town hall to be taught more about Jesus.

One final comment. I found out later what everyone in the room new about the woman who had made the outburst. She had been beaten so severely by her husband that she was mute and paralyzed on half her body. The moment she began yelling everyone there knew they were witnessing a tender miracle from God. The next day, again at the beginning of the meeting, she began flailing her arm and stood up. I still didn't know what had happened the day before, so I just ignored it. They all knew that God had just healed her paralysis. It was God's personal message to let them all know He was able and powerful to heal their wounds, cleanse their filth, forgive their sins, empower their lives and bring them safely to heaven. A couple years later, their faith was solid, they were sharing Christ, and multiplying disciples in the nearby villages.

"And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power." (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NIV)

Does your faith rest on head knowledge and polished and persuasive speakers, or on the power of God that raised the crucified Jesus to life?