Tag: Christianity

Grieving with the family of the cross

(This article originally appeared on the Texas Baptists web site.)

They have names – Milad Makeen Zaky, Abanub Ayad Atiya, Maged Solaiman Shehata, and on and on – 21 of them. Their names seem odd to most of us in America, but they are our brothers. Our human brothers. Our Christian brothers.

The Islamic State beheaded these Coptic Christians in Libya. There is no way to ignore the religious nature of this massacre. Muslim extremists killed Christians because of their faith.

The video of the killings is titled “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” Of course, we are no nation; we are a family.

Coptic Christianity counts John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, as its founder in 43 A.D. This ancient church, centered in Alexandria, in many ways rivaled Rome for leadership. Basically, it split from the rest of Christianity in 451 A.D. as a result of the Council of Chalcedon.

There now are Coptic (or Egyptian) Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians, but 95 percent of Egyptian Christians are Orthodox.

Western Christianity traditionally has accused Coptic Orthodox Christians of being “Monophysites,” or believers in Christ’s one nature to the point of denying his humanity. More recently, Copts themselves have used the word “Miaphysites,” which means they believe Christ’s human and divine natures united to make up his one nature.

What separated Christians centuries ago is of “little concern to most modern Copts,” Christianity Today reported in 2012. “Of more importance is the development of spirituality.”

The Christians martyred in the sands of Libya this month are indeed brothers of the Christians more commonly known in the West. “Coptic” says something about their faith just as “Baptist” says something of a person’s faith, but both words are best used as adjectives to modify the noun, “Christian.”

The atrocity in northern Africa is very real. It calls out for a response. But the Christian family is not like other families. We follow the Prince of Peace, the One who told us to turn the other cheek when someone assaults us, the One who said to love our neighbors as ourselves. In this family, we love even our enemies. Jesus said, “Bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NKJV).

We bless, we do good, we pray and we even love those Muslims who did this terrible crime and others like it.

And as we do so we must remember most Muslims are not like these vicious few. Muslims are not the enemy. Many of them value the same things we Christians do. They honor Jesus even though they do not worship Jesus as the unique and saving Son of God.

The killers in Libya were wrong when they referred to us as the “Nation of the Cross” when we, in fact, are a family. They are a self-described nation, the Islamic State, and other nations will deal with them accordingly.

They made the mistake of thinking we are like them. The followers of Christ are different. We are a family created, held together and empowered by God. As we remain true to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we show the world what God is really like – worthy to be worshiped, worthy to be followed.

And the blood that flowed from Calvary continues to offer covering for our sins, even the sin that caused blood to flow on a Libyan beach.

Still working on this coffee thing

Two years ago this fall I started drinking coffee while on a trip to Guatemala. When I started I didn’t know there was so much to learn. Tuesday, I learned something new.

I have thought the disposable plastic lids were odd because the tab pulls back rather easily, but then it’s hard to completely remove it. Then, Monday, I’m at Cafe Brazil with my wife and for some reason I notice that little hump in the middle of the cap. Sure enough, if you pull back the tab and push it down on the hump, it stays back and out of your way.

Then, Tuesday morning, I go to our break room to get a cup, put on the lid, start to pull it back to the hump and then read “Fasten Tab Here.” The instructions had been there all along, and I had totally missed them.

It kind of reminds me of trying to live the Christian life. Sometimes you realize the instructions have been there all along (in the Bible and in Christian experience), and you’ve totally missed it.

A Thanksgiving Day prayer: Lord, thank you for giving us instructions for how to live a life that honors you and that is best for us. Thank you also for forgiving us when we fail to know or follow the instructions. Amazing!

Holt: Thirsty for God

There is a great deal of talk about spirituality in today’s North American culture. Much of it is associated with what typically are called Eastern or New Age forms of religious expression, but Bradley P. Holt, in his book, Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality, shows that spirituality has been part of Christian theology and practice since the very earliest days of the faith.

It also was part of the church’s first great global expansion after the death of Jesus, its contraction to Europe and Western culture, and now its worldwide spread again. Christianity is a religion with a rich spiritual heritage, and Holt offers a roadmap of sorts to begin understanding that heritage.

Holt sets out to “survey the variety of Christian spirituality in both space and time.” The story of Christian spirituality covers two millennia and five continents. It deals with both the inner life and the connection of that inner life with how one lives in the world, and the survey tracks closely with the theological issues of particular times and places. The author also states on page 12 that his aim is to “bring together two fields of knowledge that do not often connect”—the history of European Christian spirituality and the study of missions and new indigenous movements.

“Spirituality” is a word used across varied religions, but Holt deals with Christian spirituality, which he describes as both a “particular style” of discipleship and a “style of walking in the Holy Spirit.  “It therefore involves the whole of life, not some private segment. It is our relationship with God, ourselves, others, and the creation.” Christian spirituality should keep those four relationships in balance, but much of church history has “focused on God and others, distorting the relationships to self and creation.” These four relationships provide a backdrop for the entire book.

The study of the tradition and present-day reality of Christian spirituality serves three functions, Holt says. First, it makes “us aware of our own narrowness, our own parochialism.” Second, it displays a variety of approaches to the subject. And, third, it “presents norms and boundaries for that variety.”

There are both theological and practical norms, the author says. He comes closest to stating theological norms on page 127 when he says he expects an “authentic theology to reflect the Scriptures; to give a central role for Jesus as the Christ; to value faith, hope, and love; to be understandable within its culture; and to challenge the idols of that culture.” Practical norms have to do with how helpful a practice is in a given situation.

The book is structured in eight chapters. Between introductory and concluding chapters, the author essentially progresses through Christian history, beginning with the Bible and then moving to an initial global stage before focusing on Europe and North America before a twentieth century chapter that includes spiritualities associated with other continents.

“What then shall we do?” Holt asks on page 129. “Having a wider horizon for our practice of the Christian life, it is up to each of us to select, to experiment, to evaluate, to adapt. A kind of knowledge is available to us from books, but personal knowledge, the kind that really counts, can come only from experience.”

Holt definitely achieves his purpose of providing an introduction to Christian spirituality by giving brief glimpses of many theological and practical movements and the key practitioners in those movements. The names associated with Christian spirituality in the early church and Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East are all here—Tertullian, Origen, Antony, Augustine, Benedict, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Thomas  a Kempis, and George Fox, to name but a few. And he adds to that list some names that will not be as familiar to a North American audience—Gustavo Gutierrez, Kosuke Koyama, and others. The names of all of the many spiritual leaders he sites are listed in a helpful “Time Line” appendix. The list includes the names of more obscure personalities from the West and some well known figures who are generally thought of as great theologians.

The author weaves this story of spirituality very closely with the story of Christian theology, and this is a helpful connection. For instance, in dealing with the spirituality of Martin Luther on page 71, Holt says, “Luther called for a ‘spirituality of the cross’ as well as a ‘theology of the cross.’” He says Luther believed that in Christ’s crucifixion God reveals his loving grace to humankind—a theological point. He then says, “A spirituality of the cross likewise is a following of Jesus through suffering and pain, not a triumphal vicarious thrill that elevates one to the heavens.”

Holt provides a similar connection with John Calvin’s teachings. The famous Reformation theologian “taught that humans are joined to Christ in baptism and that people grow in that union throughout life,” Holt says on page 74. From that theological point Calvin moves to the spiritual with the idea that “mystical union is given to all Christians by faith. … Thus every Christian is a ‘mystic,’ living in union with Christ. …”

The author goes back to the New Testament to provide his own theological connection to spirituality. “Whatever else the Bible says about God this is relevant for spirituality, this is fundamental. God is to be loved with the whole self,” Holt says on page 17. Then, he adds, “Spirituality is welcoming this love into our lives; allowing it to change our habits, feelings, and thoughts; and thus returning the love to God who started it.” While Thirsty for God is primarily a survey of Christian history, connections such as this by Holt make the book helpful for the believer who desires to connect right theology with right spiritual practice.

Christians in the West typically think of spirituality as dealing with the interior life of prayer, meditation, contemplation, and possibly worship. Holt deals with those aspects of spirituality, but he also is persistent in connecting these spiritual experiences with outward expressions of Christian love and activity in the culture. “It is important not to separate ethics from spirituality, lest spirituality be a private escape from the real world, a self-fulfillment at the cost of others,” he says on page 20 in his discussion of spirituality in the New Testament. “Ethics and spirituality belong together.” It would be hard, however, to support this connection in looking at some of the great spiritual leaders of the past who withdrew from their cultural context, for instance with the desert fathers, but many others definitely made the connection, such as Francis of Assisi.

Origen actually coupled the ethical, theological, and spiritual, Holt says on page 36. Origen set forth three-stages of the Christian life—moral, natural, and contemplative. The first has to do with behavior, the second with the intellect, and the third with spiritual union with God.

These are helpful connections for the Christian context of North America today because it provides a balanced, holistic means of seeking to understand the Christian life. It also can break down some of the fears of and resistance to spirituality when it is simply seen as otherworldly experience often associated only with Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

The ethical component connects to another of Holt’s emphases—the relationship of spirituality and Christian living to culture. “This book asserts that it is possible to be authentically Christian in any culture,” he said on page 96. “There will indeed be tension between Christianity and any culture …, but there will also be gifts that every culture can bring to the understanding of Christianity. …” Holt illustrates this in relation to the early years of Christian globalization on page 49 when he says, “Christianity in the early centuries developed in a number of cultures and was expressed somewhat differently in each of them. The foundational developments occurred not only in Greek and Latin contexts, but in Syriac and other lesser-known contexts.” This has happened in more recent decades as the churches in Africa and Asia have slipped the bonds of European Christianity with the passing of colonialism.

This is a fundamentally important subtext to Holt’s book—that other cultures have much to offer in understanding Christian spirituality. The reason this is important is because of the Enlightenment’s impact on Western thought in general and Western Christianity in particular. Holt is convinced that the Enlightenment is what separates the West from the rest of the world. (84) “Missionaries from the North Atlantic countries generally taught Christianity on the basis of their own post-Enlightenment, modern assumptions and addressed their answers to the kinds of questions they were accustomed to at home,” Holt says on page 109. “Christianity became a classroom religion of many people. It taught reading and writing and the correct answers to the question in the catechism,  … but it often did not address the questions Africans raised.” He probably would say the same thing about questions raised in Latin America and Asia. Understanding such differences offers a way forward as East and West, North and South are more frequently being brought into contact with one another. The potential for a more fully orbed understanding of the spiritual life and Christianity in general is made possible by these coming together of cultures.

The potential benefits of this can be illustrated by some speculation. Metaphors of light are often used to speak of God and spiritual understanding. There are related metaphors that speak of cleansed souls being made white as snow. There is nothing wrong with these metaphors, and they have often been seen as very helpful by Caucasians. On the other hand, darkness is often associated with evil. There is nothing wrong with such metaphors, but what impact does such imagery have on darker-skinned persons? Then, in Thirsty for God, the reader encounters a European mystic, John of the Cross, who uses the “dark night” as a metaphor to “describe the inability of the intellect to grasp God and to describe the experience of the soul on its journey to the mountaintop, to union with God.” Suddenly, the light-skinned person is jarred with a new way of seeing darkness, and the dark-skinned person is brightened with a positive image relating darkness to intimacy with God. Such things are important in bridging cultural barriers.

The author helps break down another misconception of spirituality when he speaks of its communal aspects. Part of spiritual practice includes heavy doses of solitude, silence, and stillness, but this is not the whole picture, Holt says. Christian spirituality is “not only personal but communal,” he says on page 20. “The Bible does not know of separating individuals from the people of Israel or from the church; our relations with God are as members of a body, not as isolated individuals.” And this connects spirituality to corporate worship. The church began this way in its earliest years as it adapted Jewish synagogue worship to a Christian context. Worship was next exercised in small groups and eventually in large congregations. (26) Holt points out that corporate worship is the primary means of spirituality in the Anglican tradition. The importance of corporate worship is one of the ways in which Christian spirituality is differentiated from Hindu and Buddhist spirituality.

One of the most helpful aspects of Holt’s text is his discussion of various metaphors of spirituality. It is impossible to delineate them all here, but he groups the metaphors in helpful patterns. For instance, the process of Christian living is illustrated by growth, unification, and healing, which all describe gradual changes. (125) Each conveys different nuances of Christian living, and they become even more powerful when considered together. Each stands alone, but each gives richer meaning to the spirituality behind Christian living.

Holt has written a very assessable text both in length and complexity, or the lack thereof. It provides an introduction to the subject with all of the strengths and weaknesses normally associated with such types of literature. Since he is covering such a broad subject spanning millennia and continents, and he has done so in relatively few pages, the condensing is substantial. He gives more space to the more influential persons, while some persons or movements receive only a paragraph. This actually is a strength of the book because Holt provides some quick, helpful information on these figures. It can help direct a person’s further reading or provide a quick introduction to such reading.

At the beginning of the book, Holt says, “Spirituality is easily misunderstood.” This is partly because it is a “transreligious” word not tied to a single faith. “Furthermore, ‘spirituality’ looks suspicious to some Christians because it sounds like ‘do-it-yourself’ salvation,” he says on page 2. Because it can be misunderstood but yet is an important part of Christian tradition from the earliest decades, it is important to understand spirituality. Holt’s survey can be part of that understanding. A reader likely will come away from the book no longer afraid of the term or its practice. Better yet, it can be hoped that the reader will come away with a growing desire to pursue varied spiritual practices in a way that honors Christ.

Today’s North American culture has a high degree of openness to spirituality. It generally reflects a dissatisfaction with organized religion coupled with a sense that there is more to reality than can be comprehended through reason and the sciences. This presents an opportunity for those interested in pursuing the New Testament Great Commission of making disciples of Christ. When Christians realize that “organized” is not the most important adjective to modify the noun “religion,” that “spiritual” may be the most essential modifier, then the church of Jesus Christ may stand ready again to have a substantial impact not only on people’s spiritual lives but on their cultural lives, as well. Holt provides readers with a primer for such a change by helping the cognitive part of their minds to understand the tradition and present day reality of Christian spirituality. The other essential steps are for readers to actually experience such spirituality and then to let it affect how they live their lives.

Sunday in Washington

I’m sitting in the Smithsonian “Castle” on the mall in Washington, drinking coffee, and reading Bonhoeffer while my daughters explore the Air and Space Museum next door. The sun is shining through the window next to me. The cherry blossoms can be seen out the window making their annual display for the 100th time. (They were planted in 1912.) This is a little bit of heaven.

The setting is wonderful, and the words from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together are compelling. He writes about Christian community, and I’m thinking about the Bible study group I’m a part of in Athens and the broader Texas Baptist community, which I serve as my vocation. It is truly a blessing to be part of a Christian community.

I hurry back to my reading, but I had to stop and share.

Learning from Portuguese history

In the late 15th century and 16th century, the little nation of Portugal extended its reach halfway around the world as its ships plied the Indian Ocean.

Most Americans, including me, know little about Portuguese history. I’ve just picked up a snippet of it from Robert D. Kaplan’s book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, so the following thoughts are a one-source product.

The Portuguese sailed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, up the eastern coast of Africa, then to Arabia, India, and the Far East. It was a means for them to take Christianity back into the East and possibly stem the tide of Muslim advance. Their form of Christianity, however, bore little resemblance to the Christianity practiced by most of us in the West and the world today.

Kaplan quotes Joao de Barros, a Portuguese historian of the era, giving a justification for the killing of the local populations, in this case Muslims.

“The Moors … are outside the law of Jesus Christ, which is the true law which everyone has to keep under pain of damnation to eternal fire. If then the soul be so condemned, what right has the body to the privileges  of our laws?” (p.51)

It’s amazing what ungodly things “Christians” have done in the name of Jesus. I suspect many Christians of that time had never read Scripture for themselves, and apparently the religious leaders who did read either perverted it with their teachings intentional or were caught up in their own cultural jingoism. Of course, it’s easy to judge people from a different time.

In short, the Portuguese did a lot of bad stuff to indigenous people in the cause of bringing Christ to regions East. The Portuguese, of course, are not alone in history. And Christians are not alone. Muslims, atheists and others have done terrible things to others, all in the name of a perverted ideology.

Now this from Kaplan:

“Believing themselves a chosen people destined to be the sword of the faith, the Portuguese show us a religious nationalism as doughty and often extreme as any in history. Portugal’s spectacular and sweeping conquest of the Indian Ocean littoral falls into a category similar to that of the Arab conquest of North Africa nine centuries earlier.” (p.57)

Then Kaplan brings the lessons of this portion of history to bear on our world today.

“In the post-national West, we would do well to remember that morale is still the key to military victory: in particular, a morale fortified by a narrow, unshakable conviction, which often has been the product of religion and nationalism. What the medieval Arabs and the late-medieval Portuguese once embodied challenges us to this day. To a significant extent, American power will depend on how it confronts fanatical enemies who believe more firmly than it does.” (p.57)

Here are some takeaways from this for me:

1) Religious passion is very, very powerful.

2) That passion can easily be perverted and lead to behaviors inconsistent with that religion’s teachings.

3) It is, therefore, important that our Christian passion, our fanaticism be for the things Scripture says are important — worship, faith, hope, and love come quickly to mind.

4) It is likewise important that our passion not be for snuffing out another group, but rather be for attracting them to truth in Christ.

5) On the geopolitical stage, America faces a serious challenge from people who are fanatical about destroying the American and Western way of organizing society.

6) To stand against that fanaticism, America must retain an equal fanaticism for its principles. Representative government, religious freedom, equal rights, press freedom, civil rights, and controlled free enterprise are a few that come quickly to mind.

7) This passion should not be for destroying other cultures but for attracting them to the power of our ideals.

Keller: Peace, beauty, and justice

“God is a craftsman, an artisan,” says Timothy Keller, in his book Generous Justice (p.172).

Timothy Keller

The story of creation told in the Bible is different from other ancient creation stories, Keller says. The biblical account does not have the world coming into being out of a battle or struggle; the God of the Bible is depicted as an artist or sculptor. Keller focuses on the biblical metaphor of creation as a fabric.

“… [T]he world is not like a lava cone, the product of powerful random eruptions, but rather like a fabric. Woven cloth consists of innumerable threads interlaced with one another. … [T]he fabric metaphor conveys the importance of relationship. … The threads must be rightly and intimately related to one another in literally a million ways. Each thread must go over, under, around, and through the others at thousands of points. Only then do you get a fabric that is beautiful and strong, that covers, fits, holds, shelters, and delights.” (p.173)

But the fabric of this creation has been torn by sin. It has removed shalom. We tend to translate shalom as “peace,” Keller says, but it “means far more” and is better captured by “complete reconciliation” in all relationships

“Because our relationship with God has broken down, shalom is gone–spiritually, psychologically, socially, and physically.” (p.177)

So, how does this relate to justice?

“In general, to ‘do justice’ means to live in a way that generates a strong community where human beings can flourish. Specifically, however, to ‘do justice’ means to go to places where the fabric of shalom has broken down, where the weaker members of societies are falling through the fabric, and to repair it. This happens when we concentrate on and meet the needs of the poor.

“… The only way to reweave and strengthen the fabric is by weaving yourself into it.” (p.177)

“The strong must disadvantage themselves for the weak, the majority for the minority, or the community frays and the fabric breaks. (p.180)

Keller then turns to beauty and its relation to justice–a connection I had never seen and I wrote about it recently.

“It takes an experience of beauty to knock us out of our self-centeredness and induce us to become just.” (p.183)

As Keller begins to bring the book to a close, he has a great section titled “God in the Face of the Poor.”

“… [I]n the incarnation and death of Jesus we see God identifying with the poor and marginal liberally. Jesus was born in a feed trough. When his parents had him circumcised the offering they made–two pigeons–was that prescribed for the poorest class of people in the society. He lived among the poor and the marginalized, who were drawn to him even as the respectable were repulsed by him. We see the kind of life he led when he said, ‘Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his lead’ (Luke 9:58). At the end of his life he rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, spent his last evening in a borrowed room, and when he died he was laid in a borrowed tomb. They cast lots for his only possession, his robe, for there on the cross he was stripped of everything. He died naked and penniless. he had little the world valued and the little he had was taken. He was discarded–thrown away. But only because of Him do we have any hope.

“In Jesus Christ God identified not only with the poor, but also with those who are denied justice. … Jesus identifies with the millions of nameless people who have been wrongfully imprisoned, robbed of their possessions, tortured, and slaughtered.” (pp.185-186)

“He not only became one of the actually poor and marginalized, he stood in the place of all those of us in spiritual poverty and bankruptcy (Matthew 5:3) and paid our debt.

“Now that is a thing of beauty. To take that into the center of your life and heart will make you one of the just.” (p.188)

Referring to Proverbs 14:31, Keller concludes the book by saying, “A life poured out in doing justice for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith.” (p.189)

Thank you, Timothy Keller, for enriching our lives through this book. May we better know Jesus and do justice.

(This is my ninth post on Keller’s book. I offer these posts in hopes to whet your appetite and to encourage you to read the entire book.)

For the health of the nation

“The Scriptures make it clear that a biblical agenda is broad and urgent. God’s concern extends from the protection of marriage and the family to justice for the poor and the oppressed, from the sanctity of human life to care for creation, and the furtherance of peace and freedom.”

Thus begins an introduction to “For the Health of the Nation” on the web site of the National Association of Evangelicals. It is a document produced in 2004 with the subtitle, “An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.”

I guess I had my head in the sand back then, but I don’t remember reading this until a friend sent me the link this week in advance of a meeting that is about to be held in Dallas regarding global childhood hunger.

“Political or policy prescriptions alone will not solve all of our problems, but we are called to action and the renewal of human structures as we wait for the fullness of God’s kingdom,” the site continues.

Well, in my neck of the woods, I don’t think many believers would say they have been called to “the renewal of human structures” while we wait for Christ’s return. Where does that come from? The authors of this document would say it and the “call to action”  come from Scripture, and they spell this out in the 12-page document.

“For the Health of the Nation” outlines seven issues that are important to evangelicals, including religious freedom, family life and children, sanctity of life, poor and vulnerable, human rights, peacemaking, and creation care.

Political partisans seldom put all of those issues together in the same platform. For instance sanctity of life (Republicans) and care for the poor and vulnerable (Democrats) make strange political bedfellows. Now, many Republicans would say they care for the poor and vulnerable, and many Democrats would say they believe in the sanctity of life, but their policy initiatives do not always bear that out.

The Bible, of course, gets it right, not the political parties. Holy Scripture challenges us in ways that political parties seldom do.

I commend this NEA document to you. We might quibble here and there, but it’s a good evangelical statement on why civic involvement is important for Christians.