Friday, December 29, 2017

City Notes '17 | Faith Without Illusions: What Makes Us Cynical



Faith Without Illusions Part 1 of 2 What Makes Us Cynical


This first post of two to close 2017 is about a book that I continue to come back to as I continue to walk with Jesus and seek His Kingdom and His justice and righteousness among skeptics, seekers, and believers. 

Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint is a thoughtful reflection on how disillusionment can help us understand what's really real and move us into hopeful realism. Author Andrew Byers shows that throughout the Scriptures, God has provided us with a way through critique and cynicism  of religion, the Church, and ourselves  and if we follow Jesus through it, we'll find His abundant life for us and others.


 



What Makes Us Cynical | Cynical Between the Edens Quotes

Dietrich Bonhoeffer actually hailed disillusionment with the church as a divine gift. The crushing of unrealistic dreams about God's people (as well as ourselves) is an act of God's grace: 'Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and with ourselves ... Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.' This great theologian passionately calls us to disillusionment. But for the disillusionment to bear its fruit, we have to embrace it without collapsing into cynicism. When we experience hurtful illumination and resist turning cynical, we may realize that we have been entrusted with a tremendous gift that can be used for the edification of the church. If we can manage to find healing and regain our footing a bit after the rug has been ripped out from beneath us, then we may be used by God to free others from faulty ideas about our faith. Redeemed cynics have much to offer. ... Those prone to cynicism possess insights that the church, sick with populist misconceptions and ridiculous practices, desperately needs. Their voices will only be helpful, though, if, like Paul after his epiphany on the Damascus Road, their wounds can be restored to health. We are in dire need for redeemed cynics to dress their wounds that they may rise up and flourish in the truths revealed to them for the health of the church and for the glory of God. + pgs. 11-12

The attitude of cynicism ... denies the reality that God has promised new creation, that it is just around the corner and that it is making appearances in the here and now through the work of Christ and his Spirit. We need to foster a biblical spirituality that embraces the grim reality of our ex-Eden life along with the joyful reality that God is making all things news. ... Scripture vividly portrays the people of God as a community prone to wander and ever in need of renewal and reform. Scripture also offers guidance on the proper means of promoting that renewal and reform. ... resurrection changes everything. We may live on the dark, eastern edge of Eden, but new creation awaits, and for the hopeful realists who have eyes to see and ears to hear, it keeps bursting into the present. ... Nothing heals like the awareness that God's love is large enough to embrace a church full of misguided failures, among whom I will ever be numbered. + pgs. 12-13, 23

What Makes Us Cynical | Idealism

Due to a variety of cultural socioeconomic factors, many Christians have their hopes anchored in optimistic ideals that could only come from a God who wields a magic wand and brings a kingdom that strangely resembles the Magic Kingdom! This idealistic spirituality embraces the legitimate Christian realities of triumph, strength, deliverance, joy and happiness without also embracing the equally (and often more immediate) Christian realities of suffering, pain, struggle and weakness. By embracing this triumphalistic understanding of Christianity, we are unwittingly populating our pews and our world with jaded cynics, because idealism is not tenable. Our unrealistic expectations of what it means to live as people of faith in a fractured, dystopian, ex-Eden world is providing wind for the sails of many whose faith is on the edge of being shipwrecked. ... We tend to idealize humanity and the world we live in, which creates twisted expectations that our view of God must conform to. These unrealistic ideas show up in our feel-good sermons, our trivializations of suffering and in the constant flow of our peppy, motivational lingo. So, disassembly is required in our view of humanity (anthropology), in our view of the world (cosmology) and in our view of God (theology). + pgs. 30, 33


The positive anthropology that we are made in the imago Dei (Latin for 'image of God') does not license us to be too impressed with ourselves. Celebrating the God-given beauty of humankind is always just a spit away from distorting into the humanistic teaching of modernity that we are God-independent and sufficient in and of ourselves to achieve and succeed. ... This idealizing of ourselves tends to deny not only our natural limitations but our moral sinfulness. Though we are made in God's image, that image has been marred and damaged by sin. Ignoring the nightmarish reality of original sin sets us up for grave disappointment in ourselves and in others. ... Just as there is tension in biblical anthropology (we are made in God's image, yet that image is marred by sin), there is also tension in biblical cosmology – God created the world good, but it, too, is marred by sin. While hiking on a mountain with a friend, I told him how I always strive to hear the sound of creation declaring God's praise when I am outdoors. 'I do the same,' he said, 'but I also strive to hear the sound of creation groaning.' It was a good reminder of the cosmological teaching we find from Paul that all creation is 'subjected to futility,' in 'bondage to decay' and 'groaning' with anticipation for the completion of God's redeeming work (see Romans 8:20-22)." + pgs. 34-35, 37 

The victory granted us in the world is not escape from pain and suffering, but strength to endure pain and suffering. The victorious Christian is not someone who has made a lot of money, found a 'hot' spouse, and evaded disease and injury. The victorious Christian is one who is clinging so tightly to Christ as the highest treasure that he or she can be 'content' in 'whatever situation' (Philippians 4:11). We love to quote 'I can do all things through him who strengthens me' (Philippians 4:13), but we easily forget that those words came from someone in a prison cell, and God had strengthened him to learn 'the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need' (Philippians 4:12, emphasis added). ... if our gospel cannot speak to Auschwitz, if it cannot speak to marauded villages in the eastern Congo, if it cannot speak in the ears of abducted children, if it cannot make sense to mothers digging for children in earthquake rubble, then it ought not sound forth from polished pulpits in carpeted suburban sanctuaries. ... Our theology must be capacious enough for a God who is sovereign over episodes of both rescue and defeat. 'The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD' (Job 1:21). God himself makes this striking declaration in Isaiah 45:7: 'I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things (see Deuteronomy 32:39). Hannah acknowledged in her prayer, 'The LORD kills and bring to life; / he brings down to Sheol and raises up' (1 Samuel 2:6). Are we willing to worship a God who refuses conformity to our idealism? + pgs. 39-40


Is Jesus real? The answer is no if we are talking about a Christ who 'will never give us more than we can handle.' This phrase is offered as consolation with the regularity of a favored Bible verse. Though the intentions are commendable, the theology is a bit off. I think the idea comes from 1 Corinthians 10:13 – 'No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.' Behind the English temptation and be tempted in this verse are the Greek words peirasmos and peirazo. A peirasmos can refer to a trial. If this were the case in 1 Corinthians 10:13, then 'God will never give you more than you can handle' would be an appropriate paraphrase. It is clear from the context, however, that the noun and verbal form of the word refers to 'temptation' and 'being tempted' – the following verse 14 reads, 'Therefore, ...  flee from idolatry.' Paul is urging the Corinthian believers to resist the temptation to participate in the idolatrous practices of their surrounding culture, drawing from Israel's exodus wanderings as examples. So what God will never give us more than we can handle is the temptation to sin, specifically, in 1 Corinthians 10:13, the temptation to commit idolatry. The text is about escaping sin's difficult temptations, not about escaping the world's difficult circumstances. Paul actually found that God will sometimes give us way more than we can handle for the purpose of disassembling our self-reliance and establishing reliance on God alone: 'For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself ...  But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead' (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, emphasis added). ... Yes, Jesus is real, and sometimes he cures people. But sometimes he doesn't. He grants many of our requests in prayer. But not all of them. The most heartfelt prayer ever lifted in history was his own, and it was unanswered – 'Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from Me' (Luke 22:42). And the next day he became 'Christ crucified' (1 Corinthians 1:23), not Christ idealized. Can we worship this Lord who gives and takes away, who was himself taken in the night and then given no aid on Golgotha? Blessed be this name of this Lord?" + pgs. 42-44

The 'impenetrable mystery' of our faith is that Christ has 'conquered the world' through a cross. The victory of the 'victorious Christian life' has been secured not by escaping pain but by embracing pain's deepest depths. ... Modernity has preached a message of hope and gradual improvement, but that hope has been lodged in human ingenuity. Biblical eschatology places no confidence in mortal endeavors. All hope is placed on that definitive moment when God, and God alone, will storm into our midst to make right all that sin has made wrong. All perversions, distortions, tragedies and maladies will meet their end when the divine reign is universalized and extended into every corner of the cosmos. A theological term for this event is the parousia – it refers to Christ's glorious and certain return. Revelation describes the result of this return as a re-created paradise mirroring that of Eden's garden. ... So when will God make all things right? When will dystopia give way to utopia? Idealists answer with now, cynics with never, but the hopeful realists among us answer with 'already, but not yet.' + pgs. 44-46

What Makes Us Cynical | Religiosity

The greatest work project of the ancient world is a story of disaster. The unexcelled organization and enormous energy that were concentrated in building the Tower of Babel resulted in such a shattered community and garbled communication that civilization is still trying to recover. Effort, even if the effort is religious (perhaps especially when the effort is religious), does not in itself justify anything. + pg. 48, Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction


I had been striving for so long to bring God something spiritually impressive enough to earn that precious pronouncement, 'You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased' (see Mark 1:11). God, however, was already making that pronouncement. I just lacked the ears to hear. So he instituted a sabbath of sorts for my spiritual activity. The warning of Eugene Peterson was appropriate to my situation: 'If there is no Sabbath – no regular and commanded not-working, not-talking – we soon become totally absorbed in what we are doing and saying, and God's work is either forgotten or marginalized. When we work, we are most god-like, which means that it is in our work that it is easiest to develop god-pretensions. Unsabbathed, our work becomes the entire context in which we define our lives. We lose God-consciousness, God-awareness, sightings of resurrection. We lost the capacity to sing 'This is my Father's World' and end up chirping little self-centered ditties about what we are doing and feeling.' I was in need of instituting a 'sabbath' in my practice of spiritual disciplines because at some point I had begun to equate spirituality with spiritual activity. In my performance-based activity of religious achievement, I had subtly begun to exalt myself, not my Lord. Once again, when we think we are most spiritual before God may actually be when we are most offensive to God. + pg. 56

'Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure' (Philippians 2:12-13). Though God is the ultimate source of the labor that ensures our salvation, we are nonetheless exhorted to work. This tension between our work and God's work becomes strikingly clear when holding up one of Paul's most famed slogans along with one of James's most (unfairly) infamous slogans: 'A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ' (Galatians 2:16). 'You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone' (James 2:24). ... Another passage that helps us navigate between self-righteous legalism and righteous obedience is Titus 2:11-14. Here, grace is celebrated not only for 'bringing salvation for all people' but also for 'training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.' Those of us in the Protestant tradition are quite familiar with grace's role of bringing salvation, but less familiar with the notion that grace trains us for ethical living. The Greek verb behind training is paideuo, which can connote sharp discipline (it sometimes means to 'whip' or scourge'). We are not just saved by grace but forcefully motivated by grace to live disciplined lives that are pleasing to the One who graciously saves us. So grace excludes self-righteous religiosity, yet demands righteous obedience. + pgs. 57-58

What Makes Us Cynical | Experientialism 

As we ought not to reject and condemn all affections, as though true religion did not at all consist in them; so, on the other hand, we ought not to approve of all, as though everyone that was religiously affected had true grace, and was therein the subject of the saving influences of the Spirit of God. + pg. 59, Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections


Experience must never be the criterion of truth; truth must always be the criterion of experience. + pg. 59, John R. W. Stott, Baptism & Fullness

A healthy Christian life cannot be stitched together from a series of disjointed mountain-top experiences. We need a Christian spirituality that endures the shadowy, low-lying valleys and the rocky slopes in between all those glorious summits. We must not discredit or avoid mountain-top experiences, however. They are certainly biblical – just think of Moses receiving the law on Mount Sinai, Elijah calling down fire from Mount Carmel, the Israelites celebrating festivals on Mount Zion, and Jesus being glorified on the Mount of Transfiguration. We must acknowledge, though, that our path will wind through 'the valley of the shadow of death' (Psalm 23:4), and some mountain-top experiences will not be so enjoyable. Moses may have spoken with God 'face to face' on Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:11; cf. Deuteronomy 34:10), but his life mournfully ended on Mount Nebo, where he saw the land whose flowing milk and honey he would never taste. Elijah may have been triumphant on Mount Carmel, but soon afterward he was found scared and dejected on Mount Horeb (Sinai), where God was not in the strong win, the earthquake or the fire. The Israelites may have joyfully sing those Songs of Ascents while climbing Mount Zion at Passover. But those slopes were also scaled by Babylonians who came to besiege and destroy. Jesus radiated in holy splendor on the Mount of Transfiguration, but he died naked and scorned on Calvary's hill. + pg. 64


Emotions are integral to human existence. God made us this way, and he is repeatedly presented in Scripture as an emotional being: 'My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender' (Hosea 11:8). ... 'When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, 'Where have you laid him?' They said to him, 'Lord, come and see.' Jesus wept' (John 11:33-35). 'And (Jesus) looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart' (Mark 3:5). 'Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God' (Ephesians 4:30; cf. Isaiah 63:10). God is emotional, and we are made in his image, so emotions are essential to our interaction with him. There is legitimately 'a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance' (Ecclesiastes 3:4). ... But the Bible discourages an imbalanced reliance on our emotional feelings and impulses. In acknowledging that feelings are important and helpful in many regards, Eugene Peterson bluntly writes that 'they tell me next to nothing about God or my relation to God.' In a chapter titled 'True Religion Is Not Feeling but Willing,' A.W. Tozer writes, 'The emotional life is a proper and noble part of the total personality, but it is, by its very nature of secondary importance.' Every part of who we are has been corrupted by the Fall. Our emotions are not a neutral realm – they have not escaped sin's distorting effects and must not be fully trusted. A regularly dispensed piece of advice among Christians today is 'just follow your heart' (Numbers 15:39; cf. 1 Kings 12:33), and in Jeremiah we hear him say that 'the heart is deceitful above all things, / and desperately sick; / who can understand it?' (Jeremiah 17:9). A few chapters earlier, God addressed Judah as 'evil people ... who stubbornly follow their own heart' (Jeremiah 13:10; cf. Jeremiah 23:17). Our emotions are prone to ungodly tendencies and should be viewed with a healthy degree of suspicion." + pgs. 65-66

Experiential spirituality is quick to validate the authority of spiritual leaders on the basis of their ability to perform signs and wonders. Deuteronomy 13:1-3 demonstrates that it is possible to be spiritually powerful but theologically wrong, and therefore dangerous to God's people. Someone's theology is much more qualifying for leadership than their ability to display or manipulate the supernatural. ... Jesus warned his disciples that 'false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect' (Mark 13:22; cf. Matthew 24:24). ... 'Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind' (Colossians 2:18). ... The Corinthians had been guilty themselves of responding inappropriately to God's supernatural power. Proponents of experientialism place considerable attention on 1 Corinthians 12;14, the lengthiest material in the Bible on 'spiritual gifts.' It must be remembered, though, that Paul is writing to correct the Corinthians' response to their corporate experiences of the Spirit. ... We can practice spiritual gifts and yet be unspiritual. There are no legitimate grounds for denying that these gifts are valid for contemporary church life, but it is important to note that the primary reason we know about spiritual gifts from Scripture is because a first-century church was practicing them inappropriately." + pgs. 68-70


There is much more to the work of the Spirit in Scripture than what we read in Acts 2, and much of that work is not sudden and dramatic. In John's Gospel, we learn that the Spirit will guide us 'into all the truth' (John 16:13) – which is certainly not on overnight endeavor. Paul tells us 'we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words' (Romans 8:26). Do we really notice this subtle activity of divine intercession and groaning? Paul also teaches that 'if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live' (Romans 8:13). This work of transformation by God's Spirit can certainly be sudden and dramatic, but for the most part, it is a slow, ongoing process 'from one degree of glory to another' (2 Corinthians 3:18). Rather than instantaneous and flash in the pan, much of the Holy Spirit's work is actually tedious, painstaking, meticulous, subtle and even, at times, unnoticeable. ... (Bezalel) was filled with the Spirit of God to build stuff. Bezalel was a craftsman, a skilled worker filled with the Spirit to make art. Along with his co-laborer Ohaliab, Bezalel served as the project manager for the construction of the altar, the Ark of the Covenant and the other physical accoutrements of the tabernacle ... (Exodus 31:2-5; cf. Exodus 35:30-36:2). The description of Bezalel features words rarely associated in contemporary parlance with the work of the Holy Spirit: ability, intelligence, knowledge, craftsmanship. His Spirit-filled work was far from sudden or immediately sensational – the chiseling, weaving, engraving and constructing were all meticulous, slow and practical. ... During his time at the Genesee monastery, Henri Nouwen wrote of his struggle to discern God in the small, unromantic details of life: 'Maybe I have been living much too fast, too restlessly, too feverishly, forgetting to pay attention to what is happening here and now, right under my nose. Just as a whole world of beauty can be discovered in one flower, so the great grace of God can be tasted in one small moment. Just as no great travels are necessary to see the beauty of creation, so no great ecstasies are needed to discover the love of God. But you have to be still and wait so that you can realize that God is not in the earthquake, the storm, or the lightning, but in the gentle breeze with which he touches your back.' + pgs. 72-74


The Holy Spirit is a person, not an 'it.' He is not an impersonal force or power but the third person of the Trinity. Depersonalizing the third person of the Trinity not only offends the character of our personal God but promotes our tendency to manipulate him. If we view the Spirit of God as a force or a power, then we are tempted to wield and use him rather than worship and serve him. This seems to be the attitude of Simon Magus in Acts 8 when he offered cash to Philip and Peter to gain access to their impressive power. The Holy Spirit is 'the Spirit of Christ' (Romans 8:9; 1 Peter 1:11; cf. Acts 16:7; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; Philippians 1:19), not the 'power' or the 'energy' of Christ. + pg. 75


'On the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him' (Job 23:8-9). ... 'Truly you are a God who hides yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior' (Isaiah 45:15). ... To disparage someone because they do not feel or experience anything spiritually wondrous may amount to joining Job's friends in disparaging 'a blameless and upright man' (Job 1:8) and to join the bystanders on Golgotha in disparaging One who 'saved others' but seemed unable to 'save himself' (Mark 15:31). Seasons of non experience are inevitable. We need a spirituality mature enough to endure Mount Nebo and Golgotha as well as Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Transfiguration. Practicing the gifts of the Spirit is much easier than practicing the fruits of the Spirit – our assignment is often not so much to prophesy or speak in tongues but to practice 'patience' and 'faithfulness' (Galatians 5:22) when our quiet times are eerily too quiet. What takes more faith, to rejoice when the presence of God is palpable and clear, or to rejoice in the aching pain of divine absence? 'In his economy of salvation, God needs faith which feels nothing, self-surrender which sees nothing, blind hope which seems to stretch out its hand into the void' – that's from Hans Urs von Balthasar. In discussing contemplative prayer, he also writes that, 'after the few months or years of initial enthusiasm, contemplation enters a stage of testing. Have we really based our lives on the word of God, drawing sustenance from it as earthly men are sustained by earthly food? Do we really do (contemplative prayer) as a reverent service offered to divine love, and not out of a spiritual egoism which is trying to enrich itself or amass spiritual pleasures?' The persistence of 'dry times' tests our hearts to ensure our longings are ultimately for God himself rather than for comforting feelings or impressive experiences. ... 'Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls' (1 Peter 1:8-9)." + pgs. 77-78

We must not deemphasize the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, without whom Paul tells us we cannot make the confession 'Jesus is Lord' (1 Corinthians 12:3). Three times throughout 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul instructs his readers to 'earnestly desire' to be a vessel of the Spirit's supernatural activity within the congregation (1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:1, 39). We are told not to 'quench the Spirit' (1 Thessalonians 5:19) but to 'be filled with the Spirit' (Ephesians 5:18) or we will be named among the 'scoffers ...  devoid of the Spirit' (Jude 18-19). And how can we emotionally disengage from a Lord who 'rejoiced in the Holy Spirit' (Luke 10:21) and, in a violent display of emotion, 'wept' at Lazarus's tomb? (John 11:35). ... Though Paul envisioned the local congregation functioning as a body comprising multiple members with differing gifts (1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12:4-8; cf. Ephesians 4:1-16), we have now created situations where the more dramatic spiritual gifts are allowed to thrive without the corrective influence of those gifts that are perhaps a bit less glamorous. Disaffected intellectual teaching is regularly allowed to thrive without the balancing effects of more emotional personality types and dramatic displays of supernatural power. We have dismembered ourselves from a more diverse experience of body life and conglomerated with similar dismembered parts, thereby eliminating the intended tension provided by complementary and mutually corrective gifts. Does our local church function as a body or as a collection of fingers or ears? In this homogenous set up, all the hands have gathered on one street corner with the legs across the street and the eyes a few blocks down. The solution to the current dismembered status of the church requires something terribly awkward: emotional enthusiasts and cynical skeptics need to hang out over coffee and start worshiping together. + pgs. 81-82 

What Makes Us Cynical | Anti-Intellectualism

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. + pg. 86, 1 Corinthians 14:20
Helmut Thieleck in his book, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians ... urges young Christian scholars to ensure that their intellectual training never exceeds their spiritual maturity (or at least be aware of the potential gap between the two). ... The pastor must be gentle and patient as a teacher (just as the congregation will have to be a gentle and patient teacher of the pastor). + pgs. 97-98

Jesus cites ... from the passage introduced by the Shema (from the Hebrew verb 'to hear'): 'Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one' (Deuteronomy 6:4). Immediately following this command (which has been recited daily by devout Jews since before Jesus' day) is the command to love God with all of our being, including our minds. Jesus then appends to this Leviticus 19:18, demonstrating that a love for God is never to be disconnected from a love of people. ... In the wider passage (the co-text if you will), loving God with our entire being is inseparable from knowing and meditating on his words: ... And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates' (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, emphasis added). Here we see the context of the highest demand placed on our lives as Christians – loving God with everything – is the diligent instruction and unending discussion of Scripture. There is no arena of our lives – 'when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" – that can be divorced from a constant engagement with God's words. We should not have to go to seminary to become a serious student of Scripture: the words of God are to be unavoidably present in all aspects of a believer's life (figuratively speaking, on our hands, between our eyes, in our houses and on our gates). The neglect of serious, mature thinking stands in direct conflict with that which is most binding in our lives: the greatest commandment according to Jesus. + pg. 99

The haunting account of the Fall demonstrates that the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge is potentially devastating. The knowing we must be devoted to is ultimately knowing a Person, God. Since he is most imminently presented to us in his carefully crafted written Word, then we must devote ourselves to mature thinking. But those with mature thinking do not gloat over God's Word. They tremble. 'This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word' (Isaiah 66:2). + pgs. 100-101

What Makes Us Cynical | Cultural Irrelevance 

If we really hope for the kingdom of God, then we can also endure the Church in its pettiness. + pgs. 100-101, Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline

The provincial 'ghetto' of Christian subculture: churchianity. Many of us tend to treat our churches as safe enclaves for escapism rather than as launching pads for missional living. ... Churchianity would not sit well with the apostle Paul. Not only did he strive to 'become all things to all people' (1 Corinthians 9:22), he also persistently taught the early churches to be conscientious about their behavior toward 'outsiders': 'If therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?' (1 Corinthians 14:23). 'Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time' (Colossians 4:5, ESV). 'Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one' (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). 'Moreover, he (an authoritative church leader) must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil' (1 Timothy 3:7). When Paul preached in Athens, he cited a Greek poet and used on of their own religious monuments for an illustration. When he visited the Jerusalem temple, he shaved his head as one committed to a Jewish religious vow. In his letters he provided careful instructions for Jewish Christians not to impose their own religious culture on Gentile Christians. Churchianity doesn't sit well with Jesus, either. Nothing evidences the need for the gospel to be communicated crossculturally more than the incarnation, when the preexistent Son of God left his heavenly realm to enter the day-to-day grind of first-century Palestine. When 'the Word became flesh' (John 1:14), God was going to the extreme to reach people in accessible, relevant ways. + pgs. 105-106

Disappointment in the cultural irrelevance of the church is justifiable. But much of the disappointment may stem as much from a culturally conditioned arrogance as from a sincere commitment to missional, crosscultural living. When we younger adults rail against the Christian subculture of primarily older generations for their narrow-minded cultural illiteracy, we often fail to notice that we are ourselves part of a subculture with its own narrowness and cultural ignorance. ... Are we striving to understand the struggles of those in their mid-forties rearing teenagers? Are we making strides to relate to the loneliness of empty-nest divorcees? Are we able to express genuine interest on the news programs and game shows that feature in the living rooms of our grandparents? Are we willing to venture out into the cultural realm of retirees or learn from that diminishing number of WWII veterans? ... The reason God's people existed as a divided kingdom (Israel in the north and Judah in the south) was because Solomon's rash young son Rehoboam refused to heed the wisdom of his elders: 'He abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him' (1 Kings 12:8). He listened to the arrogant advice of his peers and saw the kingdom ripped apart before his youthful eyes – an ancient case, perhaps, of cultural arrogance. + pgs. 109-110 

Though Jesus and Paul stand as New Testament witnesses to the need for cultural relevance, they also demonstrate the need for being countercultural. The mission of God's kingdom requires that we insightfully engage culture while presenting a message that will inevitably challenge culture. The escapism of cultural irrelevance is not to be replaced with the conformism of cultural assimilation: 'We have no liberty to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world, or to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world. Escapism and conformism are both forbidden to us.' Those of us committed to communicating the gospel to younger, more cynical generations must heed the wisdom of Henri Nouwen, who wrote that one of the greatest temptations Christian leaders will face is the temptation to be relevant. Being culturally relevant to a fallen culture is not exactly the goal, is it? Nouwen writes, 'I am convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. ... We must offer that which transcends all cultural preferences: genuine human relationships that reflect the gospel and the love of Christ. + pgs. 111-112 

A biblical community ...  maintains an inward health along with outward vision. What we find in the early pages of the book of Acts is a church that promotes not only a profound sense of cohesion with powerful inner dynamics but also a vigorous outreach to their surrounding environs. + pg. 113

Next post: City Notes '17 | Faith Without Illusions: Biblical Alternatives to Cynicism

City Notes are meant to provide you with direct quotes from some books I've read this year, so you can get a taste of the overall theme of the book and then begin to chew on what your life might look like if you applied what you read.

Here are links to previous City Notes books:


+ Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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