Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Fast I Choose

In Isaiah 58:6, the Prophet says, "Is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of wickendess, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?"

And although Isaiah refers here to Israel's Babylonian exile, it nonetheless has significant meaning for Christians. This passage bespeaks a characteristic desire within God for our liberation and release from sin and oppression. And with every release from something, there is a tethering to something. Of course, our tethering as Christians is to the God Who reveals to us what true power and lordship is- that is, free from sin and oppression, as found quite acutely in the cross.

All of this is to leap into a hot topic in pulpits this time of year- Lent. Lent is traditionally a season of fasting in the church. And fasting typically involves giving something up for a while, such as food, dessert, or caffeine. So what am I giving up for Lent this year? Sadly, Facebook and Twitter.

Yes, you can tell that I am a product of the 21st century. I have become so heavily addicted to Facebook and Twitter that I feel it neccessary for me to give them up for Lent. I sincerely feel that these social networks have become so intrusive into my life of discipleship that I need to eschew them for 40 days. I have often found myself reaching over to turn on my phone just to check status updates, when I could have been doing something like conversing with my wife or reading Scripture. I have also found myself logging on to Facebook and Twitter at work, when I could have certainly done something far more productive. So in short, for the good of my soul, I needed a release from social networks (note: I do not include blogs in that definition!).

So what? How will I be any different by incorporating the practice of "giving up" something during Lent? In my opinion, I think that such a practice shifts our focus back to God at times when we might otherwise not. Whenever I am tempted to spend my time by mind-numbingly perusing status updates, I instead will take a moment to pause, read Scripture, and reflect on the goodness of God. Maybe it is a habit I will continue after Lent, or maybe not. But I hope that somehow during this time, I am able to leave room for God to work, to let God in, where I have otherwise filled my life with less important occupations.

Of course, if you heard my sermon this past Sunday, this is repetitive to you. But I, for one, am glad that Lent is here. That's because I can pause and realize how much I have been a captive to outside forces (even those as benign as Facebook and Twitter), and leave some space to taste- if just for 40 days- that liberation of God.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

For Us and For Our Salvation

Those are the words constituting the thirteenth line of the ancient Nicene Creed, which has been the most complete and widely-agreed upon confession of the catholic (with a lowercase "c", meaning "universal", not Roman Catholic) church from the fourth century onwards. This line initiates a litany of twelve other colas which list the actions of God in Christ that have been or will be accomplished for this thing called "salvation". The problem is, it does not tell us exactly what is meant by "salvation". And, for as timeless as the Creed is, its lack of definition has sparked raging debates about the nature of salvation for centuries.

Lately, the nature of salvation has been the center of a debate surrounding the popular Christian evangelist Rob Bell. Now Bell is not your grandmother's evangelist. Bell is closer to mainline Christianity and is very progressive, and I would go so far as to say that he strives for orthodoxy. In his latest book, Love Wins, he reopens the old can of worms about universalism. That is, generally speaking, the doctrine that all are saved. I have not read this book, so I cannot comment on the contents of it. But it has already caused a huge stir with evangelicals, because it appears that Rev. Bell is espousing a form of universalism (there are many variations on this doctrine). That is, of course, a big no-no in the world of those who preach "salvation through Christ alone". Regardless, the topic is likely to pervade the press and church coffee bars for a while.

As for my take on it, this has never been a huge issue for me. My tradition leans heavily on the theological prowess of Karl Barth, who emphasizes the inscrutability of God (a description of which as one might find in Romans 9-11). There is, for me (and Barth), an "infinite qualitative distinction" between God and humans, so to make a decision on "who's in and who's out" is not mine- or any human's for that matter. I am far more worried about the Kingdom of God on this earth as a foretaste of eternal salvation. In my beliefs about the incarnation and my own call to ministry, I hold that God has a larger role for my decision-making in this realm than in the next.

Further, I think we have a very vague notion of what salvation in the next realm really is. It's not about playing a round of golf with JC. It's not even about being reunited with my deceased relatives and friends. It's got to be bigger than that. It's got to be all about God and closeness with God. Now I can only see that through the lens of Jesus of Nazareth. But it's not my place to say who does or doesn't belong under the eternal care of God in the eschaton. And thank goodness for that- because my judgment stinks. I'm glad it's left up to the one who has no problem dining with sinners (Matt.9:10, Luke 5:27-32, Mark 2:13-17), changing the course of religious history at the hands of a zealous sociopath (Acts 9), and offering a liberation to all peoples- called in covenant or not (Amos 9:7).

But don't get me wrong. I still believe in conversion. I still believe in action. Because God has established a covenant with the church that, through us, the world may be blessed. We may get caught up in what happens after death. But last time I checked, God cares intensely about this world. After all, God made it and God redeemed it.