Monday, December 05, 2005

God goes where He is wanted

Advent meditation

Luke 9:23 Then He said to them all, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me."

John 7:17 "If anyone wants to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority."

Jesus Christ

Christianity is not the doctrine of denying oneself. Christianity is to deny oneself.

Christianity has been made so much into a consolation that people have completely forgotten that it is first and foremost a demand.

Christianity is proclaimed in Christendom in such a way that obedience is taken away and reasoning put in its place.

Soren Kierkegaard

A lesson from loss of faith

Recently, I’ve experienced two related incidents which illustrate a failure in modern Christianity.

First, I learned of Brian Fleming, an atheist who was once a fundamentalist Christian. Brian now dedicates his life to proving that God doesn’t exist. Brian has produced a movie/documentary entitled, “The God who wasn’t there.” The premise of the movie is that Jesus is a mythical figure who really never existed.

Brian calls himself an “atheist Christian,” by which he means that even though he doesn’t believe in God or Jesus, since he was raised a Christian he has some of those ‘myths’ ingrained in him…and even likes seeing pictures of Jesus, since they make him ‘feel good.’

However, instead of “atheist Christian,” Brian would be far more accurate if he called himself a “fundamentalist atheist,” since what he has taken over into atheism is not a true ‘Christian myth’ at all, but rather a fundamentalist dogmatism, still intact in all its superficial moralism…just now with atheistic rather than Christian orientation.

But that gentle critique of Brian aside, there is a serious point here, especially for Advent, which I think is further illustrated in the second incident.

I talked with a young husband who made an attempt on his own life, purposefully OD’ing on cocaine. But he lived, still depressed. And his wife, with tears in her eyes and trembling hands, asked me to talk with him. “He has a problem with God right now,” she said.

And so I talked with him, gradually bringing the conversation around to God: “Is it true that you have a problem with God?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “But I think I brought it on myself…” I tried to pierce the inner distance in him, strongly wanting him to sense God’s love. I called him by name and said, “Do you know that God loves you?” “Yes,” he said. “I think I do…I think the fact that I’m still here shows that.” His answers didn’t seem to match the disconnect in his eyes, and so I tried again: “Tell me about your faith journey,” I said. “Tell me how you came to this point…”

And then he surprised me. “Seven years ago I became a born again Christian…” he said.

I tried to process that, and he paused…and continued: “Seven years ago I became a born again Christian…but I think I may need to do it again.”

Those words echo when I hear of atheistic Brian Fleming, who says that “he committed himself to Christ several times.”

One man tried physical suicide, the other tries spiritual suicide, but both echo the same inner disease: they tried the easy, comfortable faith route that modern Christianity offers, but both need to ‘do it again’ in some way, both still seek fulfillment.

Both men are symptoms of deep disease in modern Christianity, an illness which Kierkegaard prophetically called, “A sickness unto death.” The established church dispenses a kind of ‘sanctified’ inner despair, using the language of faith to bless and normalize the rejection of Christ’s call on the individual.

The established Church is far more dangerous to Christianity than any heresy or schism. We play at Christianity. We use all the orthodox Christian terminology – but everything, everything without character. Yes, we are simply not fit to shape a heresy or a schism. There is something frightful in the fact that the most dangerous thing of all, playing at Christianity, is never included in the list of heresies and schisms.

And this is how the modern Church drives people away from faith: superficial moral certainty without depth of moral relation; authorial offer of absolution for lives in rejection of the inner call…priestly sanctification of spiritual despair.

Modern Christianity talks a lot about ‘making a decision for Christ’ or ‘being in the church,’ but seldom talks about the reality of life under Christ. And this leads to an inoculated populace, as such watered down version of truth is placed in their veins that they will never hear the real thing – after all, they are ‘born again’ Christians or ‘good Catholics!’

People are then content to live rat-race lives, chasing after the same gold with the same methods as the rest of the world, except for the fact that they go to church on the weekends…and mouth superior moral platitudes. Is it any wonder that the world has lost faith in faith?

A lesson from God’s loving intervention

John Sundquist, former executive director of International Ministries, ABC, tells of travelling to the former U.S.S.R. in 1976. On that trip he met an elderly Christian woman, a babushka, bent over from years, frail in body. She told him a riveting story of faith:

Dr. Sundquist, I did not know how to share faith in Christ. So, I purposed every day…to wrap up my Bible and walk to the park…where I would read until someone asked, ‘What are you reading?’ Then I would show them the Bible, and read to them about Christ. Every day…I kept this promise…one a day.

But…then I fell ill…taken to the hospital for emergency operation…I was essentially was out of mind in medicine and treatment for 17 days, and could not read Scripture or share faith. Then they released me…and on the way home, I wept…for not sharing for 17 days.

I read in the tramcar…and prayed, Lord, let me make up for my lack! Then, a Russian soldier boarded the train…saw me reading my Bible, grabbed me by the neck and said, ‘Look people, this babushka is reading the Bible!’ ‘Read for us!’ he mocked her. So…she said, 'I opened to John 3:16 and read to the whole car': ‘For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.’

The car fell silent. The Word went out…the soldier released her…she sat down. She then turned around and counted the people: There were exactly 17 other people in the car. [1]

Dr. Sundquist shared this story and then asked, “Why doesn’t this kind of thing happen in our time, here in the U.S.A.?” “It’s happening around the world.”

A lesson from faith in hurting sectors

What have we done with Christ…the Word? How have we banished Him from daily life?

Christianity is exploding in the Southern Hemisphere…where the church grows in grassroots conversions and the presence of God is celebrated in daily life…sometimes in signs, visions and healings much like the first Church.[2]

But high-level research also shows that here in the U.S.A. and in Europe, people are leaving the church in droves, a net loss of faith every year -- the rise of the media-driven megachurch has been paralleled by the greatest loss of faith our country has ever known. People like Brian Fleming are no accident.

But around the world, in developing countries…Christianity thrives and changes lives. What gives?

There is something going on that mystifies the experts and doesn’t make the evening news, but the wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing through developing countries. The best recent research shows that in 45 years, fully 34 percent of the world will be professing Christians, with 3 Christians for every 2 Muslims, and more evangelical Christians in Brazil alone than Buddhists in the entire world.[3] In just five decades, only 1 in 5 global Christians will be white and non-Hispanic.[4]

A lesson from the descent of the Word

Philip Yancey, after witnessing God moving around the world, says, “My theory is this: God goes where he is wanted.” [5]

And this is vigorous encouragement for believers this Advent: God is most active precisely where hurting people call His name. The developing countries rife with AIDS orphans, famine, terror and war…are exactly the countries where God is revealing himself in highest degree.

The Word is alive and well in our world. Our calling is to get on board with His work.

Though we in the West have pushed the Word to the margins of our lives…yet somehow, as He always does, the Word loves the margins, and shows up with the marginalized…the poor, the hurting, the destitute, the famished, the war-weary, the desperate, lonely ones.

If we would see the Word anew this Advent, we would touch His children, and in that touch, touch Him.

In that touch, and in that life, a light would spring forth even in our land…light that shatters comfortable moralisms, and pierces the darkness of our sickness unto death.

Yes, even in our time, in our land!

May it be so this Advent...



[1] John Sundquist, Lecture NBTS: ME-406 Global Mission Today, Spr Qtr 1-22-04.
[2] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 7.
[3] The 34 percent figure is conservative by some standards, in Jenkins, Next Christendom. Brazil statistics from Yale Divinity mission director, quoted by Dr. John Sundquist, Lecture NBTS: ME-406 Global Mission Today, Spr Qtr 1-22-04.
[4] Jenkins, Next Christendom, 3-5.
[5] Quoted in Jenkins, Next Christendom, 15.


Patrick O'Hannigan said...

Great post here, Loy, and I haven't time to do it justice. But thank you. You're on to something important. I'd phrase it as "reality of life in Christ = Way of the Cross." And you're right-- preachers tend to shy away from that. Perhaps they've been suckered into or wearied by struggle with the so-called "gospel of prosperity." I'm of the opinion that there ain't no such animal, but then my theology runs toward old school-- and by that I mean Thomist and Franciscan.

Allen Patterson said...

Wow! Loy, you hit at the heart of what I believe is the central part of my mission here at Wayside.

But your quote about the church exercising "superficial moral certainty without depth of moral relation" cause me to wonder...

Exactly how are we doing this? What does it look like and sound like? I guess I'd like some specific examples so I can grasp the practicalities of what I can sense, but can't quite pull it into focus.

God is with you, brother.

Loy Mershimer said...

Thanks, Patrick, for your quick response. I think you are right about life in Christ as the way of the Cross, daily. And, of course, you could do far worse than being Thomist and Franciscan! I admire both...

And Allen: your question of 'exactly how are we doing this?' -- I would respond first by asking your thoughts. How would you characterize the church exercising superficial moral certainty without depth of moral relation?

I can go a bit further on this, but would rather wait to hear how your mind translates what your spirit is saying...without making it 'too easy' on you, lol. :-)

Seriously, I don't mean this flippantly. Sometimes our highest lessons come from learning to listen and translate what our spirit hears. And I'd be interested in hearing what that is for you...

Then I'll pontificate further, lol.