Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gospel:Uncut part 1

In a continuing effort to de-edit Jesus, I'm going to take a look at some fundamental implications of the gospel. Unedited, God willing. Things that may have been glossed over unknowingly by many, or ignored out of fear by others.

Fear is a driving factor in how many interpret the Bible and the claims of Jesus without their even knowing it. We come to Jesus, to the Bible, to the Christian faith with questions, with holes, with expectations. There are things we believe we need to have, that we feel we're entitled to. These beliefs have worked their way in either through a lifelong training course in self-worship by the surrounding culture, or by frightened churches themselves, by leaders and peers who want to avoid difficulty and increase prestige and reputation, who are afraid of tension and the psychological desert of not knowing you are right on every issue and point.

The subtle effect of fear is that we excise portions of reality. Forget the Bible for a minute and think about a 45-year-old woman who just found a lump, yet will not go to the doctor because the news would crush her if they found she had cancer. The kicker is, the cancer is real(or not) regardless of whether a medical professional diagnoses it; but it's somehow more emotionally stabilizing to know the lump is there yet remain ignorant(and perhaps not think about it) than to have certainty that you are sick and may die. This leads me to my first part one in the implications of the gospel: death. This is going to be a piece that elaboratees on a talk I gave with the talented John Mahshie, which he then turned into a Sermon Jam. To listen, click here, and then scroll down until you see the names John Mahshie and Nate Spencer, and click on "death."

part 1)We Are All Born With a Terminal Disease Called Life, or Wake O Sleeper

I know people who, from the way they speak, truly believe they are not going to die. Their approach to life is marked by daily self-affirmation, the seeking of security, the chasing of pleasures in such a way that could only be fulfilling if they believed they would last forever. Some of these people are spiritual. They say prayers, the practice a form of worship, and repeat phrases to themselves with the conviction that if they truly believe something it will happen. If they are Christians, they adopt a position towards their faith that says essentially the same thing as the rest, but laced with utterances of "in Jesus' name."

The subject of death is not popular usually.
Unless you are being faced with its imminence, through age or sickness, you are probably in some denial about the fact that you will die. Death may press upon us in unavoidable ways, like when a loved one dies, but to look it squarely in the face as something that is coming for ME is unnecessary pessimism and negativity, or seems unreal and irrelevant. More often our mindset is likely to manifest in relation to suffering- a much more frequent bogeyman, one that threatens in a multitude of ways smaller than death, but could be around any corner and thus has to be dealt with daily, even if it's simply a matter possibility and speculation.

The trick, for most of us, is to avoid thinking about death, and persist in delaying or eradicating suffering and non-fulfillment of any kind. The bottom line, were we to evaluate ourselves psychologically, is securing a happy, empowered, financially stable, relationally healthy life. Perhaps a spiritually aware one. For the Christian, it might be to maintain the blessing of God. Faith in Jesus is the guarantor, and these qualities of life are potentially even seen as the Christian's entitlement. Politically, many would include a lifestyle oriented towards positive change. We recycle. We vote on platform X. We support legislation. This has the dual benefit of creating a feeling of usefulness and empowerment, ends in themselves, and advancing practically towards that which we need to maintain the lifestyle we desire.

Politicians and advertisers have played on this endlessly: the elevation of the individual, their unique identity, their fulfillment and satisfaction. Usually someone stands to gain something by telling the audience that their happiness is crucial. A product is offered towards this end, and profits are reaped. Remember that emotional, inspiring ad for the Coast Guard? "I am the port in the storm. I am the line in the sand. I am rescuer in the dark." I want to be those things! Sign me up! Barack Obama ran a campaign using the slogan "Yes we can," and driving it home in his famous Black-Eyed Peas music video with visionary force, promising opportunity and prosperity. Without judging the motives of either of these cases, we can easily see the power of of pushing the identity, prosperity, meaningfulness, and happiness buttons.

I won't deny that a promising vision and a strong hope for and commitment to the future is what gets things done. But most people will embrace these visions, for themselves, for their posterity, for the world, without the least acknowledgment that all is passing away. That they will die, perhaps painfully or before their time. That their children will die. That everything they have worked for will, with time, fall apart and be forgotten. And that the world will perish, by(if you're a Christian) the wrath of God, (if you're an apocalyptic environmentalist)man's negligence or(if you are a scientist) by a slow inner geological cooling and the dying of our sun that leaves everything
cold, dark, and dead.

What do you do with such pessimism? Is there another option? If the entire world is hurtling towards tragedy, why doesn't despair reign? Certainly there is the natural human predisposition to believe something positive, some hope, is worth holding onto. But a raw, coldly calculating philosophical perspective, there really is nothing worth ultimately working for, because it's all crumbling. Soon. If you're reading this, you will die soon. 70 or 80 years if you're young and lucky. This should shape our entire paradigm, and mostly it does, except that instead of inspiring despair, it inspires a mad scramble to GET ME SOME! Assuage the inevitable pain with the intoxicants of wealth, reputation, healthy lifestyles, relationships, and good government. See, I'm in good shape, really...I swear, everything's going great. Wrong. Everything is in decay.

For the paradigm shaped by death, there is but one option, whether acknowledged or not- avoid death. Avoid thinking about it. Do whatever possible to postpone it. If you must die, let it be a long, long time from now, and never think about it until the moment it hits. Pretend like it will not happen, and enjoy what you can get ahold of for as long as your white knuckles can grasp it. Pretend things last forever. Avoid suffering as well. It is a curse and gets in the way of the bottom line: your happiness and security. When you are going through it, curse those who brought it upon you, and vow retribution, because that way others will think twice before defacing your happiness in the future.

That is what life looks like when death reigns over you. Pitiful, eyes-closed, teeth-gritted denial of reality, and desperate leaps towards an iceberg that is big enough to hold your weight and last a little while before the sun melts it and sinks you into the sea. The best keep up the charade for a little while and gain some recognition and approval and success...and then die anyway.

Are you weeping yet? I tell you, this is the reality we have to look forward to.

Unless Resurrection shapes our paradigm.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those wh0 through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.(Heb 2:14-15)

Did you hear that? You were a slave because of fear...fear of death. You
used to need the security of life and promises of success and health and painlessness. But then Jesus rose from the dead and set you free from that fear. He showed you that dying wasn't that big of a deal, because that which it separates you from is dying also, and because you just get up again anyway. Do not live any longer as if these things are the bottom line, because death has been proven powerless. Jesus Christ rose to show you that-- the powerlessness of death and the coming glory. He showed you for a reason: so that in your new found freedom from the fear-of-suffering, you could break the chains holding you back from doing what Jesus did. From sacrificially loving people when there is no reward. From dying to the need for money and financial security. From refusing to consider the opinions of others grounds to alter your behavior, especially of those who will hate you on account of him, even persecute you and kill you. From living in the Kingdom of God, instead of the kingdom of self.

“I do not wish to be a king. I am not anxious to be rich. I decline military command. I detest fornication. I am not impelled by an insatiable love of financial gain to go to sea. I do not contend for chaplets. I am free from a mad thirst for fame. I despise death..." -Tatian, 160 AD

There is a bottom line, and it is not your happiness, security, influence, empowerment, comfort, wealth, reputation, or self-actualization and spiritual achievement. It is that God's kingdom, established on the work of Jesus and given to you via an eye-opening, earth-shattering paradigm shift caused by the visibly resurrected Messiah, manifests itself in gospel proclamation and gospel action. In Christ-witnessing agape. I despise death.

Suddenly the call is answerable:
"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

Suddenly African children do not have to die of malaria for lack of $1 mosquito nets, single mothers do not have to raise their children alone and marginalized, and enemies who are out to destroy us can receive in return the gospel, because money, reputation, and comfort
do not matter anymore.

The degree to which you
see the risen Christ is the degree to which you will be able to follow Jesus to the cross, and escape the death-shaped life. And then you will live like Paul- liberated, proclaiming, Spirit-empowered, content, suffering and dying for the gospel.

...keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication...for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly as I ought to speak.(Eph 6:18-20)
Remember my chains. Grace be with you.(Col 4:18)
I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.(2 Cor 12:10)

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, dangers from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.(2 Cor 11:25-28)

For. The. Gospel.

It's that simple. You will lose everything anyway, you might as well lose it for something that is not perishing. Do you gain anything? Of course. Jesus Christ risen from the dead. You "come after" him into the kingdom of God. He is the prize. Forgive me if it's a cliche, but "he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."

I need to drastically reassess what I'm expending my effort on.


Erin Hope said...

you might find this interesting:

even in trying to do good, the world just doesn't get why.

Leopold said...

I am alone in an empty house. It is quiet, except for the sound of my typing. It is snowing outside my window. Each of the snowflakes I see is different to a degree that I cannot fully understand. I am enjoying watching this for several reasons. It is the first real snowfall of the year, and I have not seen one like it in a long time. I will never in truth see this particular snowfall again, and though it reminds me of so many others, of people walking down the street shrouded in wool coats, of hot chocolate, of making snow angels and snowmen, and many other snowfalls from now may remind me of this one, I will never see this snowfall again. I will never be in this moment again. I must watch and appreciate it now, and so much of my appreciation for it is rooted in the fact that is will soon pass away. This moment, right now, will never, ever come again. People who are afraid of death decide to do so many things based on their fear, things which dull their senses, dull their emotions. We think, as you astutely point out, that we can store up permanence in our possessions to somehow make us believe that we are not going to die. In one of the most horrendous errors of the human condition, we think that things that last forever are somehow of greater value than things that are fleeting. Yet you are right when you say that nothing we gain does last forever. But it is wrong to say that this makes it less valuable. It is only less valuable when we use it to delude ourselves that we will last forever. And it seems to me that the description you lay out here of the heart of Christianity is in this sense completely in accord with the rest of what you call “The World” on this one (“The world” by the way is a gross overgeneralization in that the actual words could refer to absolutely everything, though I know you did not originate the term). You’ve just replaced all of the possessions that other people use with Jesus, yet both are operating on the same basic assumption. That things which are permanent are more valuable. It is the idea which tells us we can possess permanence: a home, a car, a family, possessions, collecting things from far and near in an effort to convince ourselves by the solidity of these things we ourselves will in some way endure. It is only the same to say that because Jesus will endure, we will also. It is no wonder that health and wealth gospels are so rampant, because in this essence, consumerism and Christianity are the same. They both provide us with illusions of permanence, of invulnerability, and of freedom which is somehow separate from the ebb and flow of the universe; the delusion that we are not wholly a part of “The World.” (How would your perception of Jesus change if you had no designs on him? If you had no quantifiable prize to be won? If you could see him for exactly who he is?) It is an arrogance for one, but moreover, it is the foolhardy assumption that things which endure are of greater value, and yet those things we accumulate, while they are for the most part good things, when we look at them in this light lose all value as what they are, because we see them only as a means to our own glorification. You may have loved ones who have died. You may never see them again. You will never be in this moment again. Thoughts of them will become memory and memory will become part of the way in which you see, the way in which you think, and are grounded to that which you hold dear. But still, they will never return. Is it not enough to say, “This is good. This thing I am in right now, life, the world, my own mind and heart, right now, with all that has come before, shaping what will be, is good” and appreciate it as it is? Appreciate it as the material of our existence, and know that because one day we ourselves will cease, we will not endure in our element, not our identity as we know it, but will leave only an imprint of who we were on the world, that we must fully appreciate this moment now, in all our vulnerability and impermanence? This, above all things should give us cause to value what we witness here and now, should give us a foundation of morality, but more importantly, a basic understanding of what it is which makes our lives and the lives of others worth living. All of what we find valuable in this life, all of it, is ephemeral. Beauty, love, connection, emotion, thought, truth, freedom, life; all of these will pass away as well. Is this not enough? It seems to me that Christianity in the sense you describe it here is only a shaky and vain extension of consumerism, and the desire to possess more and more. If we realize that even all the things we buy, and try to possess, are also going to vanish someday, must we then go farther down a rabbit hole of fear and presume with a perfect and historic arrogance that we ourselves are eternal things? Is this not self serving and at the same time self destructive? Is it not enough to see the world as it is, in front of us, both perfect and flawed at the same time, and accept it? If we go to such great lengths to deny our own death, what do we have left over when we have paid the price of believing in this immortality? If we cannot see and accept that we will die, cannot accept our own vulnerability, cannot accept our mortality, and cannot accept our fallibility, then what can possibly lay ahead save apathy towards all else that is real, all else that defines our lives, and all that can be appreciated about them? And if we put so much stock in any being or thing beyond ourselves, presuming that that being, that person, has already done it all, said it all, and we only need to accept it, then what does that do to our sense of responsibility? To those around us? To ourselves and to this moment in the universe? If I only have a few moments on this earth, then I am impelled, not frantically but with resignation, to do the best I can here. And the best I can do is very often to see it, to appreciate it, to interact with it in every unique moment. I cannot help but wonder why anyone could ever want more than this. It may be a flawed world, and a difficult life, but it is still perfect in that it is what it is, it is exactly the world. We must drink this cup which is put in front of us. Do not rob yourself by thinking you are better than it, will last longer than it, or are not a part of it in every fiber of your body, mind and soul. Do not devalue yourself in this way. You are more valuable, more beautiful, more perfect than eternal life. I have no idea what comes after this. But people you love will die. Things that you love will end. This is how things are. You will die. Is who you are less wonderful because of this? I hardly think so. (Please see “Wings of Desire,” one of the greatest movies ever made, which has the added bonus of showcasing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds early on.)

Nate said...

Very well expressed, I must say, you bring up some great thoughts. I'll try to respond briefly to a couple:

First of all, this is right on the money:

"Yet you are right when you say that nothing we gain does last forever. But it is wrong to say that this makes it less valuable. It is only less valuable when we use it to delude ourselves that we will last forever."

Couldn't have said it better.

"And if we put so much stock in any being or thing beyond ourselves, presuming that that being, that person, has already done it all, said it all, and we only need to accept it, then what does that do to our sense of responsibility?"

I'm assuming you're responding here to my assumption about the finished work of Jesus Christ, and one's trust in it. This is the great offense of the gospel, of the cross. The idea that there is a solution to sin, to suffering, that takes places without our help, implying that you and I need do nothing in order to deal with sin, be forgiven, obtain merit, garner approval, "make the world a better place," etc, is far to libertine for most because it raises just the question you have: what about responsibility? In its raw purity it provokes backlash in the human psyche: "Well I'm not just going to sit around, look at all that's wrong with the world! There's work to be done."

But that is indeed what I'm saying, that it is finished, that all the work we could do to these ends is futile, because the problem against which I would be working is actually an ineradicable sickness, not just a set of distasteful or unsightly circumstances. So it took a sovereign act of God.

Of course that begs the question: So do we do nothing? Of course not. Just that the purpose toward which we now work is different.

"If I only have a few moments on this earth, then I am impelled, ...to do the best I can here. And the best I can do is very often to see it, to appreciate it, to interact with it in every unique moment. I cannot help but wonder why anyone could ever want more than this."

"You’ve just replaced all of the possessions that other people use with Jesus, yet both are operating on the same basic assumption. That things which are permanent are more valuable."

If I'm hearing you're response right, the gist of it is encapsulated in these above 2 quotes. And really I can't argue with it except to point out that it hinges on one point: Is there a permanence, or not? I speak of eternity. Do I go on, or not? If not, you're right, I should seek, Zen style, to find my home and contentment in everything exactly as it is, including mortality and the impermanence of my life. Content to end, or at least not to know what happens after. And this is certainly achievable.

If a resurrection has been revealed, it would be arrogance NOT to desire it, and replace all current desires with this new desire. I mean, otherwise, why reveal it? In this scenario, I need a paradigm that roots me in that reality. Because it is only with such a paradigm that I will act in my current life in light of the eternal one. Now, to your point concerning health and wealth gospels, this becomes distorted and provokes an improper action. But only because the paradigm is rooted in "what I get" as bottom line, instead of "Jesus reigns." If I am not the center of my concept of heaven, I avoid the trap.

What I'm saying in this post is that, there does need to be action (responsibility question resolved) but it is to a different end than "death shaped" action. And different, it seems, then that which flows from the paradigm you've introduced. It is action compelled by the knowledge of eternity. There is a "Prepare the Way!" about this scenario. That is why proclamation is such a big deal.

Forgive me, but I do find much of the approach you're suggesting to be in a "super-spiritual" vein, achieving something thru disciplined meditation and a life of spiritual pursuit(you didn't say that, but I can't imagine it coming any other way)...like I said, I don't doubt that it works, it just seems completely inaccessible to normal, "unspiritual" people who don't spend years reading books and clearing their mind of desire.
This seems too lofty to be the gospel, because it limits the achievement to the Talented. It is out of reach of 99% of people. And I'm too much of a populist when it comes to Ultimate Reality.

I think bottom line for the issues you raise is: what exactly has been revealed? Depending on where you start, you will end up in different places.

I will definitely look up Wings of Desire.

Leopold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leopold said...

I'm sorry I have to reneg a little on the last comment I left. What I really mean to say is that I don't fully understand where you're coming from. What I don't understand is what we need to be saved from and why, and why it is that you think that it is not in our power to work for good?

Nate said...

I'm afraid I have to give you a pat Baptist answer on what we need to be saved from: sin.

As far as it not being in our power to work for good: It is in our power to work for things that look good. And it is in our power to work for good when the standard for good is something other than the righteousness of God(again, using pat phrases- I have nothing better at the moment).

But the good that we cannot work for is the eradication of sin. Not as an individual action or set of actions, but as a predisposition to exalt ourselves and despise God. This is what Jesus on the cross worked: the removal from man of the responsibility to eradicate sin. Without man's help.

The implication I'm trying to get at is that the good that can be worked by you and I is not, well...BAD...it just isn't powerful enough to deal with the real problem. It's not that there can't be joy, enjoyment, love, inner peace, justice etc, it's just that's not the ultimate need...to be delivered from sin is. Because honestly, what frame of reference do we have for "good?" Our definition of good is based on our experience. So of course we can experience what we have subjectively defined as good. But the gospel suggests that there is something we've been separated from- a good that we can't even begin to fathom because it's so outside our knowing, immersed and conditioned as we are in our environment. Something that can't be achieved, that must be given from "off the grid."

The snowflakes will be experienced a supremely more glorious way, because of what is about to be restored.