Sunday, October 30, 2011

is this the right room for an argument?

Titus 3

1 Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, 2 to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.

3 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. 8 This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

9 But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. 10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. 11 You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned.

Americans, at least some of us, love a good debate. We love to watch. Some of us love to participate. We love to wrestle with ideas; to look at an issue, take a position, and then plant our feet and defend it.

For some… ok, for me… presidential election seasons are watched with the same enthusiasm that some have for baseball or football. I love politics for the sport. I love the offensive and defensive strategy; the virtual violence of the debate. And election night? It’s like the Super Bowl without the funny ads.

Debate is important. It is the way we hammer out ideas and reach solutions to problems. It is the way we come to know our own mind or the minds of those we follow. It is even, sometimes, the way our minds are changed. Debate is really good and really healthy; except when it is not.

The history of the church is punctuated with debate; with sometimes violent and bloody debate over how the scriptures are to be read; or even if they are to be read (by anyone other than qualified professionals). While our tendency toward violence based on religious conviction seems to have waned (within Christendom) our angry rhetoric and our propensity for drawing lines in the sand seem to be alive and well.

Most of us (that grew up in church) grew up in a world of denominational division. As a Baptist teenager I worried about my friends that went to the Methodist church. I had no idea what the Methodist believed or how they differed from Baptist; I simply knew they were different and therefore suspect. I would laugh out loud, years later, when I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It”. The patriarch of the Maclean family was a Presbyterian minister and, when asked to explain the difference, said simply that “a Methodist is nothing more than a Baptist who can read”.

I would guess that many of us grew up with similar prejudices toward those outside our particular brand of Christianity. While it is probably human nature to align ourselves with certain tribes – to feel more at home in one community than in another – there is a dark side to this sort of tribalism that has for centuries led to deep anger, hatred, and even bloody conflict.

9 …avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.

Again, it has been years since the church has burned a heretic or engaged in a religious war, and yet we continue to fight these battles from pulpits or blogs or twitter or facebook posts.

A popular young pastor publishes a book asking questions about heaven and hell – and he is issued a smug “farewell” and his seat is removed from the table. A national pundit and commentator instructs Christians to flee churches who utter the phrase “Social Justice”. A fundi preacher in Hipster Clothing makes old-school pronouncements on gender roles; or women in the pulpit, and is descended upon by the emergent crowd like ants on a discarded ice cream cone (ok… that was me… I think I might have been one of those ants…)

We love to fight – probably because we love to be right. We need to be right. And if we are going to be right; somebody has to be wrong.

9 …avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.

There is an ancient Jewish parable in which two rabbis are arguing over a verse in the Torah. The argument has gone on for over twenty years. Finally, God gets so annoyed by the endless discussion that he comes down and he tells them that he will reveal what the verse really means. The Rabbis turn to God and respond by saying, "What right do you have to tell us what it means? You gave us the words, now leave us in peace to wrestle with them."

Maybe, if we are honest, winning the argument – being right - is more important than truth. Or maybe we simply enjoy the argument for its own sake. And maybe God is annoyed at our “endless discussion”.

One of the greatest frustrations with our government is that it is crippled by these very kinds of arguments. While there are those who live at the far left or the far right, most are simply folks who want the people we elect to do their jobs and to keep the ball rolling forward. Wisdom should tell us that solutions are superior to ideology and that hard work accomplishes more than debate. And it seems that the church now follows the same path as our government. We have entered into “endless discussions” over this doctrine or that stream of theology and we have decided that we should stop all forward movement until the issue is settled. Trouble is the issue is never settled – and many of the issues likely never will be settled. And instead of advancing the Kingdom – instead of working together to build it on earth – we beat up on each other – we argue and debate – until we are nothing but noise and confusion to those on the outside looking in.

We have a calling. We are called to change the world; to build and to create; to strip away the things that blind us and the rest of the human race from the reality of His kingdom come. While our beliefs, our convictions, our doctrines may help us toward that end; they are NOT an end in themselves.

Outside of Christ, we have only one picture of human bliss – of humanity in perfect harmony with its creator. We see this picture in the creation story. We see this harmony in the Garden. And we see that this harmony, this beauty, this pre-fall bliss was not the result of right doctrine or good theology. In fact, it was the knowledge of good and evil that destroyed humanity’s perfect harmony with the creator. Adam and Eve had always been naked – it only became a problem when the idea of right and wrong entered the conversation. God’s “who told you that you were naked” is perhaps worth a great deal of contemplation.

John 13
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Not because we are right… not because we agree… not because we have one, single, pure doctrine… but because we love one another.

The name of Jesus is not exalted by the eloquence of our words or the strength of our arguments. But His name is shouted in our love for one another and for those around us. We will never “win the world” by winning the debates within the church or even the debates between the church and those outside. We win the fight when we stop fighting. We lose when we confuse the affirmation of our ideas with real and genuine love – which is what our hearts really need. But I win when I realize that I don’t much care whether you agree with me so long as I know you love me.

9 …avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.

I am 47. I can see 50 in pretty clear focus. In a handful of years I will have outlived both of my parents. And I find myself looking back more often. It is not that I have stopped looking forward; it’s just that I am finding the path ahead is greatly defined by the path behind.

I see change. The world has changed. The ways we communicate have changed. But, mostly, I am thinking about how I have changed.

As I came to the close of my 20s – as I faced 30 – I was certain about a great many things. I knew what was right and what was wrong. I knew what God loved… and what he hated. I argued and debated for right belief. I smashed my secular records, gave up R-rated movies, salty language, and beer. And I wondered, if not out loud, if HIV was not a natural consequence of sin. I voted republican and was a 5 point Calvanist.

When I look back at 20-something me, I am not ashamed or filled with regret. I know that that version of myself was a necessary part of becoming who I am in this moment. And I am encouraged because I am beginning to understand that growth cannot happen if we remain static – that when we grip to tightly any moment in time, we miss the beauty of change and growth and wisdom.

These days; I rarely, if ever, listen to “christian music”. I love and embrace salty language… and beer. I don’t believe that anybody should be denied a seat at God’s table. I am not sure I believe in the “rapture” and I am more than a little conflicted about hell. And I look back at that 27 year old kid and realize that we still have something in common. We both want desperately to live as closely to God’s heart as possible. We both are seeking wisdom and truth and we are both being changed by every question asked.

And so… I look back and marvel at the evolving reality of the man I am while I look forward to meeting the man I will be when 50 has almost disappeared in my rear-view mirror.

As our vision as a community has come into focus over the last few weeks and months, I have been struck by something beautiful and surprising in its simplicity. As we become a people who pursue the work of the kingdom - liturgy as the work of the people – our doctrine becomes less and less important. When we are raking leaves at Miss Bev’s House or sorting sweatshirts for “The One”… we are not all that concerned with debates or controversies. We are not concerned with being right when we are concerned with being busy. This community represents a variety of opinions on a variety of issues and we will certainly discuss and debate these issues over coffee, or a meal, or a glass of red wine. But our debates will not define us. Our doctrine will not define us. Instead, let us be defined by our love for one another, despite our differences, and by the way we actively engage in the work of the kingdom. Let us continue to believe that His kingdom is here and that we are called to actively participate in the full revelation of his kingdom. A kingdom revealed in our love… for Him… for each other… and for the world.

His Kingdom Come

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