Redefining Christian Witness

"Love one another as I have loved you"

“We are against Halloween,” one minister recently told me.  This is a common response I get from folks in the church.  That, and:  “We are against homosexuals, abortion, environmentalists, liberals, social-gospel types, postmodernists, illegal immigrants, people-who-worship-like-that, health-care reform, and redistribution.”  As some Christians follow in the footsteps of partisan politicians, it remains an easy habit to become known for being against something instead of being for something.

A recent Barna poll asked people what contributions they think Christians have made to American society.  The pollster divided the answers between positive and negative contributions.

The results are telling.  Although 34% of people under the age of 25 stated that Christians have contributed something to help the underprivileged in society, a larger percentage of people could not think of a single positive contribution that Christians make to society.

Contrast these figures with what people say are the negative contributions that Christians make, and we get a clearer picture of what kind of message the church is sending in the public sector.   One out of every five respondents say that the most negative contribution that Christians make in society is a “vitriolic attitude.”  That’s followed closely by the fact that Christians are known for being very, very anti-homosexual.  (Only 6% claimed that Christians made a positive contributions to marriage, by the way.)

For the most part, all this survey tells us is that people on television–those who get airtime for being the most sensational in their speech, including Christians–influence how people view Christians.  We are so busy trying to fight culture wars and drawing lines in the sand that we have basically isolated ourselves from becoming culturally relevant whatsoever.  That line in the sand ended up being a circle in which very few can stand.

But becoming relevant for its own sake also misses the mark.  After all, Jesus did point out that, “wide is the gate to destruction, but narrow is the gate that leads to eternal life” (Matthew 7:13-14).  The Gospel is good news for people in need of salvation, but Jesus makes no apologies for calling those same people to live under the lordship of a holy and righteous God.

Yet, Jesus also tells us that he, not us, will be the one to separate the sheep from the goats.  He will judge the “living and the dead.”  Jesus told us not to spend our time judging others “lest” we be judged too.

When we define ourselves by what we are against, we usurp Jesus’ place as ultimate judge and try to separate sheep and goats on our own, without considering the very myopia of our own perspectives.  We assume that we know God so well that we will choose for Him whom we let into the wider fellowship of faith.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his audience to welcome people that a majority in society doesn’t welcome.  This includes people who have no resources of their own (Luke 6:27-36) and people who are deemed “unworthy” or are ridiculed in society (Luke 14:12-24).

Not only do we welcome people without reservation or preconceived notions of judgment, but we are to define ourselves by our relationship with them too.   Jesus is our example: “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them'” (Luke 15:2).

My prayer is that we are a people known for being passionate, sold-out, Jesus-freak followers of Christ who spend so much time with sinners and saints alike that no one will fail to recognize the positive contributions we make in society.   Not only will this further the Gospel, but it will harness the energy of people who stand ready to inaugurate God’s agenda for the redemption of all creation.   Go and be the Good News of inclusion, not the bad news of rejection and vitriol.

I’ll leave you with a quote from ethics professor, Dr. David Gushee, in his recent op-ed, “Christian Witness Among the Partisan Fray,” at http://www.abpnews.com.  He writes,

Christians are called to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7). Our American Babylon needs our prayers. And it needs from us not thoughtless participation in partisan combat, but a uniquely Christian moral witness of commitment to the common good and love of every neighbor.

In time for Earth Day: The Creation Message of Psalm 23

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God makes me lie down in green pastures; the Creator leads me beside still waters and restores my soul.”

This Psalm — the 23rd — is one we hear often at funerals. It is one of my favorite psalms, but it makes for more than a great funeral liturgy. When we look closer at its words, we can sense that it also has a creation message. With Earth Day coming up this week, perhaps we can read Psalm 23 with a different pair of eyes.

I think people love this psalm because it addresses the healing and rest that we long to experience. During a funeral, while grief is in full effect, God’s presence enraptures us with a refreshing declaration of divine sustenance. This is profound because it alludes to the rest that all of creation seeks.

Psalm 23 provides us a vision for spiritual serene pastures, but I think it also encourages us to preserve and conserve pastures that our children, families, and neighborhoods can enjoy in the here and now.

The vision of the psalm begins with the overriding claim that God is shepherd. This is a powerful, earthy metaphor for God, who uses a “rod and staff” to navigate all of creation into the heart of the Trinity’s love.

The author of the psalm, David, was a shepherd, so he did not use this term lightly. He knew that shepherds exist to care for their flocks. Having the geographic know-how to find flourishing greenery and water resources — a love for the earth — was a necessity. There is a relationship between shepherds, sheep, and the land in which they reside.

The sheep are not without some responsibility. As followers of the Creator, we are obligated to care for the environment because our relationship to God is tied to our stewardship over what God owns.

Economics and politics aside, working to better our environment is a moral obligation. Consider that the rise in asthma, cancer, and obesity (to name a few consequences resulting from environmental scruples) can all be tied to the pollutants that we expose to our environment and food supply.

In recent months, our society has seen a shift in public opinion toward environmental policy because of scandals surrounding several e-mails from climatologists. Although a majority of Americans still believe that climate change is partially man-made, a recent Gallup poll reveals that skepticism toward climate change rose nearly six points in the past year.

For Christians who long to see the vision of Psalm 23 realized in their neighborhoods, such arguments play a small part in creation care. We care because God calls us to be stewards, not because we feel the need to appease some sense of corporate guilt for our shaded past.

Nor should political and economic maneuvering usurp God’s commandments that reach as far back as Genesis, in which God creates a “good” creation for humans to tend, to the end of all history as recorded in Revelation, which states that God will judge those who “destroy the earth” (Rev. 11:16-19).

As God leads us beside still waters and green pastures, we approach this Earth Day in a posture of humility and confession. A prayer for Earth Day, penned by the National Council of Churches, is appropriate: “O Lord, You have created a fragile world in perfect and delicate balance. Thinking too much of our own importance, we have upset that balance. We ask your forgiveness, Holy and Righteous God. We yearn to join the mountains and valleys, the rocks and the birds … in singing Your praises. Amen.”