Monday, December 15, 2014

Still Waiting for--and Pursuing--Peace on Earth

In a few days, I will take a couple of weeks to celebrate the Christmas and New Years' holidays with my family.

This time of year seems more peaceful to me than any other.  But as events in our world have reminded us this year, there is a marked difference between feeling peaceful, and actually having peace.  Both Testaments of our Bible employ a word for peace that transcends mere feeling or sentimentality, and their Holy Spirit-inspired authors bridge the linguistic differences between Hebrew and Greek to choose words that have a remarkably similar meaning.  Both the Old Testament and the New communicate a sense of completeness and wholeness.  Both imply a sense of total welfare, and both include an element of ultimate justice.  In other words, Biblical peace is more than a feeling.  Its a sense of balance and wholeness and covers all of humanity, and its something God promises to restore to the world.

We often get glimpses of what this looks like during the Christmas season--sometimes through experiences that make us feel as though we are living for a moment inside a Norman Rockwell painting.  We should enjoy such times, but we should never mistake them for the ultimate peace that Scripture promises us will someday come.  As recently as last evening, we were reminded of this as reports came in from Sydney Australia of what appears to be an ISIS-inspired hostage situation.  We are, perhaps, living in one of the most unpredictably violent periods of modern human history, even as we will quote the angelic announcement of "peace on earth" from now until the conclusion of the advent season.

Ask the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner if they think we have "peace."

Ask the families of the 47 police officers who will not be celebrating Christmas with them because they were killed in the line of duty in 2013 if they think we have "peace."

Ask the Israeli IDF soldier whose life is threatened daily by political forces beyond his control if he or she thinks we have "peace."

Ask the Palestinian family who lives in an open-air occupied prison under the threat of becoming "collateral damage" if they think we have "peace."

Ask the average American who has read the latest CIA report on torture if he or she thinks we have "peace."

Ask the Pakistani family whose child was blown to bits by a drone strike if they think we have "peace."

Ask the thousands of military families who will sit at Christmas dinner this year without their loved-one who was killed in battle if they think we have "peace."

Ask the Ukrainian family now living under Russian occupation if they think we have "peace."

Ask the thousands of Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, and others from Iraq, Syria, and surrounding areas who have witnessed unspeakable horrors at the hands of ISIS if they think we have "peace."

Ask the parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School who are about to spend their third Christmas without their kids if they think we have "peace."

In some cases, the people above are on polar opposite sides of the violence.  But there is one thing they all hold in common, and its their answer to this question.

So what are Christians to make of this?  How can we possibly speak of the sort of peace the Scriptures describe--and promise--in the midst of our current global context of violence?  Well, for starters, we can go back 2000 years and discover that the world into which our Savior was born was also experiencing this kind of violence.

When you and I read Paul's words in Galatians about Jesus' coming in "the fulness of time" (4:4) our temptation is to sanitize our description of that kairos (the greek term for the "right moment.")  We speak of the Roman road system that would make the rapid spread of the Christian Gospel possible, but we leave out the Roman practice of crucifixion--which makes water boarding look like a college frat initiation.  We speak of the pax Romana which ensured relative "peace" throughout the empire, but neglect the barbaric way in which the Roman occupiers often kept that peace.  We speak of the Jewish longing for Messiah that at this point in time had reached peak expectations, but forget the murderous rage of Herod the Great that resulted in a blood-soaked Bethlehem--a Jew killing fellow Jews in a raw grasp for political power.

And today, we also tend to ignore the darker side of our own surroundings.  Over the years, our family has taken several folks visiting our area to nearby Washington, D.C.  Inevitably, I will take guests to the steps of the U.S. Capitol, and point them down the mall toward the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, explaining that the Egyptian and Greek architecture respectively--along with the Roman architecture we are standing on at the Capitol--was chosen by the designers of this city to illustrate that we were building on the great empires of the past in order to build the most exceptional and free society that has ever existed in the history of humanity.  But every time we witness violence in our own land--whether it be in person or through the media--we are reminded that we are but another imperfect empire in a long line of empires--none of which will ever be able to truly and finally bring "peace."

The world into which Jesus came and the world you and I inhabit are equally violent.  In many ways, that first Christmas looked far less like a Bing Crosby song, and more like an ISIS-controlled Syria.

Yet into that turbulent environment walks a Priest by the name of Simeon.  Luke tells us that he had waited for virtually his entire ministry for God's Messianic promise to be fulfilled.   The arrival of a lower middle-class family with their 8-day old baby boy finally fulfilled that promise.  In that moment, Simeon blocked out the surrounding violence, and only saw promise.

"for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.  a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel."

Yet here we are, 2000 years later, and the world still doesn't know the "peace" of which our Scriptures speak.  Why is this?  Because Jesus' advent was merely the announcement--His life a precursor, His death full payment, and His resurrection the guarantee of peace for all who will turn from their sins and put their trust in Him.  Ultimate and final peace--the sort that is more than merely the absence of conflict, but also includes the presence of justice, wholeness, and balance--isn't here.  At least, not yet.

Which means when followers of Jesus speak of their hope for peace at Christmastime, we aren't doing so under the delusion that we will usher that peace in without the return of Jesus.  But when we cross political aisles, railroad tracks, and neighborhoods to understand and stand in solidarity with another, we are providing a foretaste of what this world will be when the One who came in humility  the first time comes the second time as conqueror of the world He created.  One of our popular carols at this time of year expresses this hope perfectly:

No more let sins, and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow,
far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found!

No wonder Jesus said those who make peace will be called "children of God" (Matthew 5:9).  When we pursue peace, we demonstrate that we are like our heavenly Father.  As we celebrate this Christmas, let's let that celebration be signified by our own efforts at peace-making.  Like our Savior, let's live as a sent people, and while we wait for ultimate peace on earth, let's not merely be satisfied with the peace we "feel."  Let's cross lines.  Let's run toward trouble while the rest of the world runs away from it, and let's demonstrate the ultimate end to our message by bringing the love and presence of Jesus wherever it is needed.....

....far as the curse is found!

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Danger of "Living in the Present."

Imagine a married couple are expecting a child.  Now imagine that during that 9-month period they do absolutely nothing to get ready for that child.  They do nothing to provide a nursery, a bed, or a place to change diapers.  They don't think through how their work schedules are going to change in order to care for this child, or how they will afford childcare outside the home should the wife decide to go back to work.  They don't add the child to their will.  They don't provide life insurance for the child.  Worst of all, they don't secure medical coverage for the child once he or she is born.  Now imagine asking this couple halfway through the pregnancy how they could have possibly been so short-sighted.  And imagine them responding by saying "we are doing just fine right now. We don't have a baby yet, and there is no need to do any of that until we have one."

You have just observed a couple who live consistently in the present, and think nothing of the future.  How many churches do you know like this?

Churches are often accused of "living in the past," but if the truth were told, too many churches are simply "living in the present," and simultaneously wondering why there is no growth, no excitement, and no vision.

Not long ago I was consulting with one of our congregations, and made some recommendations on steps forward they needed to take.  My work with Baptist churches means that I don't have any final authority over the churches I serve, but I also figure they wouldn't be paying me if they didn't want my input from time to time. However, one particularly strong objection to my recommended changes was punctuated by the phrase, "besides, we are doing just fine as we are."

"That may be true," I replied, "but you are not doing just fine as you will be."

A church with 100 active members will always--ALWAYS be at around 100 members unless it begins living in the future, and as such, behaving as if it were at 200 or 300.  But that sort of behavior demands change that can be uncomfortable.

1. Governance.   Smaller churches can have monthly business meetings and discuss everything....and I do mean EVERYTHING.  I once sat through a meeting in which the church body had a 45 minute discussion about how to spend $100.  To their credit, they were also very kind and civil to one another while having this conversation, so I couldn't accuse them of being ungodly.  But I did come very close to offering to write a check if they would simply stop talking!

But once a church begins to grow, monthly gatherings where every member of the body has the opportunity to offer input become increasingly impractical.  In Baptist churches, this means that our congregationalism becomes less "democratic" and more representative.  And this may be the hardest thing to change because everyone wants to be heard!  Problem is, once a church gets to the 250 mark, its not possible for everyone to be heard any longer, and if you want to get there, you have to start behaving like you are already there!

2. Staffing.  Conventional wisdom where church staff are concerned is "we will hire them when we can afford them."  To be sure, I have sometimes consulted with churches that are "over-staffed" and did so with the false notion that simply filling a position would somehow create excitement and subsequent growth.  But hiring the right people will create growth.  Generally speaking, you shouldn't wait until you can afford them.  Instead, you should hire who you can't afford to lose, and then watch them earn their keep!

3. Budget.  The ministry budget of a church is the real statement of a church's core values, and without faith-filled and calculated risk playing a role in the budget process, churches will inevitably budget "in the present."  Instead of starting with "what we took in last year," churches should instead start with the financial necessities involved in meeting the needs of its community and the world.  Too many resources that could otherwise be invested in Kingdom advance stay in the hip pockets and purses of God's people simply because we fear dreaming big, and being straight with the church about what it will take financially to live that  dream!  We aren't "all about the money," but we are all about Jesus and His Kingdom, and church members should be challenged to give sacrificially based on a future vision.

Churches that grow and impact their communities and the world are churches that live in the future!