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From Sacred Space to Public Grace

I was at a Christmas party with my kids this past holiday season and I was conflicted. The music was hot, the kids were eating well, and everyone was merry. Problem was, I wasn’t enjoying myself. I was trying to figure out why. I mean, I like rap, I like R&B, I like Bruno mars and Beyonce, but today I was unable to enjoy their music. Why? Because this party was in church.

I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t enjoy myself:
-Was I taking a holier than thou attitude?
-Was I being hypocritcal?
-Don’t I hear this music in other places, like the gym?
-Would Jesus even care? Would he be that offended?

Then it hit me: this is supposed to be a sacred space. Then I had to think to myself, what is the role of the sacred in our lives? Why do we distinguish the sacred from the everyday, quotidan, profane?

The sacred is a display of public grace.

What do we mean when we say something is a public grace? Grace is displayed:
-because the sacred indicates our sense of God’s existence
-because the sacred indicates our need for God’s presence
-the sacred displays our desire to know and experience God
-the sacred expresses our submission to His perfections
-the sacred indicates our awareness of sin and need for purity
-the sacred reinforces our hope in the transcendent

When we say that something is profane, on the other hand, we mean to prioritize the lowly over the heavenly, the immediate over the right, the tangible over transcendent. Profanity obscures God, while the sacred is meant to reveal Him.

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Do we choose God, or has He chosen us?

Last week, we attended an Assemblies of God church called Trinity Life here in North Baltimore. I took a moment to read a bit about the Assemblies of God, with a specific emphasis on church doctrine. More specifically, I wanted to know if the church was Reformed in its theology, or if not, how much of the Reformed doctrine they reject.

When I say that I am concerned about Reformed theology, I am not necessarily talking about things like the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and I am not necessarily talking about conforming to those things taught by The Gospel Coalition or Desiring God. While much of my own life has been greatly influenced by the books and sermons published by pastors who are members of these groups, there are several teachings they articulate to which I do not subscribe. However, I generally agree with them when it comes to the basic doctrines of Reformed theology: TULIP-

Total Depravity [addressing the nature of man]

Unconditional Election [addressing the Sovereign action of God in salvation]

Limited Atonement [addressing the efficacy of the death and atonement of Christ]

Irresistible Grace [addressing the conviction of the Holy Spirit]

Perseverance of the Saints [addressing eternal security of those who are in Christ]

The only reason I qualify my agreement with the term “generally” is because I do believe that the Bible presents all of these essential truths as antinomies. For example, it is clear that the nature of man is totally depraved–meaning that man rejects the nature, personality, and law of God. Nonetheless, it is clear from what we can observe and what we know about man being formed in the image of God that man can do some things that are good, from our perspective. Therefore, we see that while man does not seek for God, the life we experience is not completely negative in every aspect. Nonetheless, because men fundamentally reject God, we have not only the potential for immense good, but immense evil.

The antinomies that become more important for sorting through the different varieties of Christian theology are the antinomies in which the free will of man is set in contradiction to the sovereign will of God. This antinomy bears most on the doctrines of unconditional election, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Some Christians believe that election is not unconditional; that is, the Holy Spirit enables the sinner to become aware that there is a choice between God and their ways, but that the sinner can continue in their ways after this awareness. Because election depends, then, on the sinner responding positively to God’s invitation, grace is, by definition, not irresistible and perseverance is not guaranteed. At the same time, the atonement is unlimited because it is applied to all but effective only for those who do not reject it. From an outward, practical perspective, the lives that both types of Christians live might look identical, but what is affirmed as truth about God is quite different.

While the Reformed theology states that man does not have unconditional free will, because man cannot choose God in his sinful nature, there are Christian theologies who believe that man can choose God as an exercise of will as described above. These branches are sometimes called Arminian, and the Assemblies of God denomination happens to be an Arminian branch. While I believe that the Scripture more strongly affirms the Reformed positions, there are very clearly Scripture passages that affirm both–hence the antinomy.

While I enjoyed my visit, I am a bit nervous about attending a church that would find affirmation of these Reformed positions to be anti-Scriptural. This is besides the other Pentecostal positions some Assemblies affirm. Among these, the most uncomfortable being that speaking in tongues is the initial evidence of authentic conversion. But, I’m interested in waiting and watching to see how things shake out. As you’ll notice, I haven’t listed all of the Scriptures and passages used on both sides. I’m not sure that I wanted to do more than think through some of the concerns I have.

What do you think? Can man choose God, or does God move first?

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Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.

Let me say that this statement contains a useful summary of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer believes to be the essence of Christian life, lived for the purpose of building up others in Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes this in the first chapter of his book, Life Together, which crystallizes his theology of Christian community. As time permits, I will try to share a few reflections from this book that I believe are encouraging. I have finished reading the book for some time, but it is difficult to write a review so I will share a few thoughts over the next week or two as I have opportunity. Let us start by discussing the quote above.

We see his emphasis on grace. If you have read more than one paragraph of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing–in most cases even only one paragraph–you will know that Bonhoeffer believes that the grace of God in Christ is the reason for living. It is the rationale and motivation of our ethics. It is the breath of life and the substance of what we call death. To Bonhoeffer, grace is everything, and so it is fitting that this quote from his book, Life Together, begins with grace.

We see that his focus on grace yields to his acknowledgment that God allows us to live in community with other Christians. I’ve written recently about how much I am disappointed and dissatisfied by church. I think that Bonhoeffer, even if he saw exactly the same data that I experience, he would conclude that even the church experiences that I have had are a supreme gift of grace that must prompt a response of praise and gratitude and not one of self-righteous complaint. When Bonhoeffer wrote this book–one of his last–he was writing as a pastor who was a leader of a non-sanctioned non-denominational seminary in Germany during the Third Reich. Communities of authentic Christianity were not common. So he wrote this with the understanding that the enjoyment of Christian community for many could be abridged at any moment by the governing authorities. Thus, not only is it grace, but it is a privilege if God calls you to live in Christian community with others. If He calls you to respond to Truth in Christ, He does so without respect for your external circumstances. Many are called to labor alone. That is not my call in Christ, thank God. He allows me to live in community with other Christians.

And this brings us to the third thing we see here: community. If we are in Christ, our lives are not our own. Bonhoeffer understood that our lives are lived in Christ, through Christ, expressly for others and not for ourselves. To me, this truth is tricky because, of course, it is only possible for me to be self-aware, physiologically. I can only be aware of things that are revealed to me, speaking from what I understand of our cognitive processes. However, in Christ, our lives are not our own. Starting in my own household, since I am married my body belongs to my wife and not to myself. The desires of my children often come before my own, discipline notwithstanding. Choices that I can make, even if I do want to satisfy my own desires, are circumscribed by household resources that do not belong to me but to my household as a unit. And this is before I leave my doors. If I read the Scripture, yes I am transformed but my transformation affects my brothers and sisters. And much about my spiritual journey cannot be accomplished if I am isolated from my brothers and sisters. How can I experience grace if I never need to ask for forgiveness? How can I experience kindness if I am never put in a position to rely on the sovereign choices of others? I cannot develop self-control or patience if I am never subject to the will of another. I cannot exercise love or be loved if I am not in any relationships. It quickly becomes clear that what Christians call the fruit of the Spirit cannot be cultivated outside of community. It also becomes clear that these fruit are not produced for our own sustenance, but for the sustenance of the entire body.

How is God calling to you to live for the Body? In what ways can you thank God for the Christian communities around you?

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Why is it so hard to find a church? The old wine is good…

christmas holly decoration

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing, but expecting different results. Jesus puts it this way:

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment,for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed.But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” [Matthew 9:14-17, ESV]

Some may read this passage and say that it clearly addresses fasting. Fair enough. But I think it is a very clear statement that it would be insane for followers of Jesus to expect him to fit into their established traditions. Perhaps one might see this a bit more clearly in his words here:

He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” [Luke 5:36-39, ESV]

Do you see that statement at the end? “And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.'”

I think this statement explains why we see so much division in conservative, Evangelical Christian churches in the United States. We have spent so much time drinking old wine–familiarity with our socio-economic classes, familiarity with our racial communities, familiarity with styles of preaching and teaching, familiarity with culture–that most of us will not even attempt to taste the new wine.

For those of us who do, the answer is often “The old is good.”

I feel these words viscerally because I have been searching for a church for a bit over a year now. It has been the hardest and most frustrating experience of my life. It has gotten to a point where I am very seriously considering not attending church services on Sundays at all, but just reading my Bible through the week and meeting my men’s Bible study on Saturdays.

Slowing down to think about it, I think that my frustration is caused by my insanity. Consider this. I was looking at the website of a local church that is a 20 minute casual walk from my house, and on their blog is a post titled “A Small Church.” In that post I could not believe what I found. Some advice on finding a church from Eugene Peterson.

Go to the closest church where you live and the smallest. After six months, if it isn’t working, go find the next smallest church.

Now, I live in between three neighborhoods in Baltimore City called Roland Park, Guilford, and Homeland. I grew up in the Black Baptist Church. I believe it is very likely that I will not find this experience at the church who posted this blog, because not only is it a different denomination, but it is rooted in the community where I live. So, by Christ’s definition, I am completely unwilling to consider it because it doesn’t match the traditions and culture I have become comfortable with.

On the one hand, I could justify myself in all of this by explaining race issues in the church, explaining how I want my children to grow up and experience what I experienced, how there are relatively few places where I don’t have to apologize for being myself. On the other hand, could God be calling me and my family to taste new wine?

In my mind, I have this idea that most people used to attend neighborhood churches. There wasn’t much thought put into selecting a church because you went to the closest church that spoke your language and fit your denomination. It seems to me that there were several practical limitations that made this an accurate description of most Christians’ church communities until relatively recently. A number of technical advances have made the dilemma I am facing somewhat new.

If I can describe my challenge in two words, consumer Christianity, then I’ll say that my own consumer Christianity is only possible because of technology. I can Google churches on the internet and listen to sermons or look at pictures of the congregation. I can look at maps to see the locations. I have a car that allows me to drive a relatively great distance in a relatively short period of time. I can read reviews of the church before I attend. And, unique to the American/Western context, I am not constrained by the traditions of any denomination. All of these factors have made the church, in my opinion and experience, radically pluralistic. It’s as if Romans 1 has become true for us in our church experience. God has given us over to consumer Christianity.

All of this to say, I’m afraid of trying something new. I’m afraid of going to the church that is in the community where I live. I’m afraid of losing my identity by attending that church. I’m also afraid of preventing my children from developing an African American community. I’ve tasted the old wine, and it is good.

Am I willing to taste His wine?

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