Saturday, December 31, 2016

Non-Hysterical Conversation

"I've decided to stay out of those discussions, until I'm sure that we can have a non-hysterical conversation about it."

A "non-hysterical conversation"... 

The moment my friend casually uttered that phrase, I was immediately struck by its simple and profound wisdom.

It's become increasingly difficult to have a good, old-fashioned conversation these days. Much more so, a debate. I recall with fondness all the late-night theological discussions during my Bible college days. In a non-denominational school, my friends represented a wide variety of viewpoints, and we enjoyed (a) our spirited discussions, and (b) the ability to go out for coffee the next day, because friendship/fellowship was not mandated on 100% agreement.

Discussions about politics and religion have always been meme-worthy in their ability to devolve into polarized shout-down matches. That was true when I was a kid, and it appears to be -- if anything -- even more vociferous today, thanks to anti-social media platforms that reduce dialogue to soundbytes or less.

"Theology by zinger" is a fairly predictable byproduct in a culture that prizes the ability to cram complex ideas into a bumper sticker or a tweet.

I could go on to suggest that the casualties of the zinger approach would include things like: nuance, context, and understanding. You can't even legitimately arrive at the old adage "agree to disagree" if all conversations degenerate into zinger-ology.

But I think something far more basic has been lost, and if there's any value in making a New Year's Resolution for 2017, it might be this:
We need a revolution of listening.
The art of conversation, and respectful "help me understand" dialogue. Where the end goal is not to gather ammunition for the next zinger, but to understand. "Agree to disagree" may still be the result at times, but relationships will be greatly improved.

And "non-hysterical conversations" will look (and sound, and feel) a lot more Christ-like.
"But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience." (1 Peter 3:15-16)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Savior Is Born

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord...”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
(Luke 2)

Now, if this was the classic scene from "A Charlie Brown Christmas", the next line come from Linus VanPelt, blanket in hand: "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

A Savior is born.

In order for the birth of a Savior to be "good news that will bring great joy", there must have been a felt need to be saved from something. For example, the helpless swimmer caught in the rushing water leading to Niagara Falls understands his/her need for a "savior" in ways most of us can only imagine.

The Israelites believed the promised Messiah would save them -- from the occupying army of Romans. The Sadducees, who had largely adopted a civil religion approach to their faith, would have felt the same. A savior would be political, to deal with their enemies.

The Pharisees, confident in their own righteousness based on their scrupulous observance of rules & regulations, would also have assumed that a Savior would save them from external enemies.

And that would have been good news, politically speaking, to a people oppressed by a foreign government.

But Jesus, the Savior and promised Messiah, had another Kingdom in mind, and his earliest message was simply, "repent." He left little doubt in the minds of his hearers that He considered the real enemy of His Kingdom to be sin, a problem that only He could deal with.

Both Sadducees and Pharisees were deeply offended by the idea that they needed saving. Their pride blinded them from seeing their own sin, while the average Israelite -- often more aware of their spiritual condition -- seemed more receptive and willing to respond.

And the various writers of the epistles echoed the same theme, over and over: Jesus came as Savior to save people from their own sinfulness. They were powerless to fix the problem; they needed outside help.

Just like helpless swimmers nearing the brink of Niagara, they needed a Savior.

Fast forward to the tail end of 2016, and nothing in human nature has changed. We are still a collection of human beings with a sin problem, expressed in various and sundry ways across many countries and cultures, but just as real today as it was in Jesus' time.

We are still powerless to fix our sin-sickness, and all 'religious' attempts at hiding the symptoms under fig leaves of denial does us no good whatsoever.

We (still) need a Savior.

And that's why we celebrate the birth of Jesus. That's why, even two millennia later, the story of His birth is good news that brings great joy.

Unto us, a Savior is born.

That's what Christmas is all about.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Personal Savior

Every now and then, I hear (or read) something that mocks the idea of Jesus as a "personal Savior".

The rationale is usually along the lines of: "What? You think you own Jesus, or something? Like, He's your personal Savior -- what a narcissist you must be, to think you're that important!"

Sometimes, as I'm well aware, the person uttering the comment actually does know what the phrase means, and is only pretending to be confused because they want to mock. But even so, when I pause to think about the phrase "personal Savior", I think it's worth the time to explain. You never know -- behind the mocking might lurk a genuine desire to understand.
(Of course, my facetious nature is at times tempted to respond with something like: "Well, what's the alternative? An 'impersonal' savior, who can't be known or experienced? Just some vague cosmic liver shiver -- how is that an improvement?")
But then, just in case there is a legitimate question buried somewhere, I realize that a facetious, bumper-sticker-level 'zinger' is exactly the wrong way to respond. So, I hereby bite my facetious tongue and would like to submit the following:

The idea of a "personal Savior" is very similar to another well-known phrase: "born-again Christian". Both find their roots in the evangelical belief often referred to as "conversionism" (á la Bebbington's Quadrilateral).

Simply put, "conversionism" means that nobody is born a Christian. Christian parents don't beget automatically Christian children. Going to church, getting attendance awards or Bible memorization ribbons, or attending every high school youth retreat ever held doesn't make you a Christian. Being born in a supposedly "Christian" nation counts for absolutely diddly-squat.

Conversionism is the assertion that each individual must make a conscious decision, at some point in their life, to surrender to Jesus. He is the Savior of the world, yes, but each individual in the "world" needs to decide whether or not they will follow Him. Literally, a "come to Jesus" moment of decision.

In other words, it's personal.

Of course, some of the same people who mock the phrase personal Savior also look down their noses at the entire concept of conversionism, usually with statements like: "we're called to make disciples, not converts," (in a tone of voice that subliminally includes the addendum, "you drooling theological moron").

Nine times out of ten, they are fully aware that discipleship is always predicated by coming to faith in Jesus (conversion) in the first place. Unconverted people, typically, make poor disciples (some converted people also make poor disciples, but that's a topic for another time).

For example, after Peter preached a passionate sermon on the Day of Pentecost, over 3000 people had their own personal "come to Jesus" moment, and were converted to faith in Christ. After which, they were discipled as they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, and to prayer (Acts 2).

But it all started with them making it personal with Jesus. Not relying on their Jewish heritage or synagogue attendance or bar mitzvah, any more than we can today rely on the country we were born in, the church we attend, or how many worship songs we know by heart.

With Jesus, it's always personal.