John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Filtering by Category: Engaging Culture

"Chosen People"

When most of us hear the phrase "Chosen People" we automatically think of the Jewish people -- particularly in the Old Testament. And we mostly think it means "God's Preferred People." But we should stop and ask ourselves what the descendants of Abraham were chosen for.

When God first appeared to Abraham, here's what he said, "Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:1-3).

A very quick, surface-level reading of this text reveals two things.

First, Abraham was chosen to be the father of a great nation. Say what you will, the Jewish nation is a great nation now. From one man and his wife have come millions and millions of descendants. At various times in history they have been great militarily and monetarily. Abraham's name has become great. People who have blessed Israel have typically been blessed, and people who have treated Israel with contempt have typically been cursed.

If you want to include The Church in this now, I won't quibble. The Church is also a great nation, a multitude of people no one could ever count -- like the stars in the night sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. People who bless the church find blessing, and people who treat the church with contempt find trouble.

Second, Abraham was chosen to be a way through which God could bless everyone. As we said in the last post, this is God's deep desire: to bless everyone. It's his default setting. It's what God loves and longs to do. Sometimes he does that directly. Other times he chooses to bless people through other people. This is precisely what Abraham's descendants are supposed to be: a blessing to the rest of the world.

God wasn't just choosing to bless Israel here; he was choosing to bless the world through Israel. Being one of the "chosen people" should never lead to a sense of entitlement. It should lead to a sense of duty.

Again, I say we should include The Church in this. The Church is a vessel through which God has chosen to bless the world. Being part of The Church shouldn't cause you to feel any sense of entitlement or superiority. Being part of The Church means you have been chosen to bless the world around you.

And we don't do that by complaining all the time or acting like bullies on social media. We don't do that by living in isolation, withdrawing from society and condemning the world for acting like the world.

We will bless the world when we get out into it and take the redeeming love of Jesus with us. It's that kind of action that will truly mark us as "Chosen People".

Learning to Listen

We live in an increasingly diverse culture, and surely one of the things we have learned is that American Christians can no longer claim the privileged position of guardians of our culture's morals, values and truth claims. I might even go so far as to say that our position today more closely resembles that of the Christians in the New Testament than the position of Christians over the past several centuries who lived in a church-dominated world. Serious Christians -- Christians who take their faith seriously and seek to live it out with integrity -- are a minority. This is why we find ourselves marginalized by the culture's elite institutions. We've largely done this to ourselves, but we now find ourselves on the outside looking in at those who shape and create culture.

If we ever hope to be taken seriously again, there are some things we simply must do, and the most basic among them is this: we must be willing to listen as much as (if not more than) we speak.

Listening communicates more respect than speaking. We're not good at this for several reasons, but I think the most generous reason I could give is that we're confident that we possess the truth. Listening suggests we may actually have something to learn. We're not often willing to admit that we could learn something from people who disagree with us over issues of faith and morality.

However, it is a basic tenet of the Christian faith that omniscience belongs to God and God alone. Thus, the idea that we may have something to learn from someone should not be a novel concept or one that strays too far beyond the pale of our particular brand of orthodoxy. Still, it is rare to hear anyone -- particularly anyone interested in the concept of evangelism -- advise Christians to actually listen to their non-Christian friends.

By listening, we not only show respect, we also affirm truth in a friend's position, at which point we can point him or her to a greater, deeper, more comprehensive and more satisfying truth.

More than anything else, the style we adopt should look more like Jesus than it has in the past. Any attempt to accomplish a godly goal using an ungodly method will ultimately fail.

Jesus looked at the crowds and felt compassion towards them, because "they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36).

Jesus' tone and style stand in stark contrast to the Pharisees who said this of the crowds: "This mob that knows nothing of the law -- there is a curse on them" (John 7:49).

Which of those two do we most often sound like -- especially when we're engaged in political discussions or the "culture wars"? Are we more likely to sound like our overall goal is to crush our opponents or bring healing and salvation to them? If we really want to bring them to into a relationship with their Heavenly Father, we must rethink our tone and style.

I repeat: any attempt to accomplish a godly goal using an ungodly method will ultimately fail.

Our Ongoing Task

I grew up in a certain context. The church in which I grew up had its mind focused on the past as it attempted to restore The Church to its original foundations. We believed that if we could do church the way they did church -- once upon a time -- all would be well. They didn't have instruments; we didn't have instruments.

They didn't have women in leadership; we didn't have women in leadership.

They didn't own buildings or church vans or use amplified sound systems or wear suits and ties or have Sunday School or use hymnals to sing in four-part harmony; we didn't...well...obviously the restoration process had its limits.

My point is, we looked back to the earliest churches to find out what we should be doing and how we should be doing it.

I no longer believe this is a wise approach.

Instead, I believe the ongoing task of the church is to recreate the miracle of Pentecost: allowing people to hear the gospel in their own language. The questions "what should we do?" and "how should we do what we do?" should only be asked after we ask ourselves "why did they do what they did the way they did it?"

The "why" question gets us to a principle. Then we take that principle and figure out how to translate it into our current culture.

See, if we're all trying to go back and copy a particular pattern from an earlier time, then all our churches are going to look pretty much the same. And that's how it was when I was growing up. I could travel from the deep south out to California down to Mexico up to New York into Canada and across to England and find that one church looks almost exactly like another.

But I don't think that's how it should be. The gospel can take root in any culture and the expression of the gospel may look different. A church in California is going to be different from a church in Russia -- because the people in those places are different today. We waste time and energy trying to get Californians and Russians to act like Ephesians.

Trust me, the Ephesians didn't have it all together.

On the Day of Pentecost, Peter did not stand up and force everyone who wanted to hear the gospel to know and speak his language. Instead, by the miraculous empowering of the Holy Spirit, Peter stood up and spoke to them in words they could understand.

We should follow suit.

This means we need to plant a lot of different churches -- recognizing that the language of the baby boomers is not the language of millennials. The language of moderns is not the same language postmoderns speak. People who are married with kids speak a different language from college students.

The question we must ask is this: Do we love people enough to try to speak to them about God in their own language?

Not everyone speaks Church (we do have our own language, you know). Do we love people enough to enter into their world and understand the way they think and speak and act? Do you love feminists and progressives and GLBT people?

What if -- and this is a crazy idea but hear me out -- we only spoke to people we loved? And what if we reminded ourselves before we began to speak to anyone that we're supposed to love everyone?

Culture as a Second Language

On the day of Pentecost, when The Church was born, Jews from all over the known world were in Jerusalem. For many people, this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. And a miracle took place. But what was the miracle?

There was a sound like a blowing wind. And there were little tongues of flame resting on each of the followers of Jesus. But the real miracle -- the one that everyone talks about -- happened when they opened their mouths. All these people from all over the world heard the disciples speaking their language. Not Hebrew or Aramaic. People from Egypt heard them speaking Egyptian. People from Greece heard them speaking Greek. Arabs heard them speaking Arabic.

This was the real miracle: Each culture heard the gospel presented in its own language.

There is power in this. It helps to know that God didn't just send his Son to redeem the world; he sent his Son to redeem my world. Jesus didn't just die for everyone's sins; he died for my sins.

The transition from understanding the universal to the personal often comes when the teacher begins using my language.

Isn't this why we translate Bibles into other languages? Cameron Townsend went to Guatemala nearly 100 years ago, trying to bring Spanish-language Bibles to the people there. But when he got into the rural areas -- the places where people still spoke tribal languages -- he encountered resistance. One day an old man confronted him, "If your God is so smart, why hasn't he learned to speak my language?"

Cameron spent the next 13 years of his life translating the Bible into the language of that tribe. Based on that experience, he later started Wycliffe Bible Translators.

But, of course, this goes way beyond just translating the Bible. It should also include the language we use when we gather together as the church. Do we speak in such a way that a person who has never been there before could still connect with and relate to God? Or do we make them jump through a bunch of cultural hoops and learn to speak our language first?

I've been to too many churches that feel like they're stuck in a time warp. The message, the music, the dress and the issues discussed seem disconnected from today. I wonder how many guests would come to that place and wonder, "If God is so smart, why hasn't he learned to speak my language?"

 

What Are Our Methods?

Many of the religious leaders in Jesus' day believed the approved method of God's people included support of nationalistic, sometimes violent revolutionary activity against Rome. But Jesus rejected their approach completely. They were willing to kill to get their way; Jesus was willing to die to get his way. This is one reason why God will always defeat evil. God is willing to suffer to get what he wants; evil is only able to cause suffering -- it is not able to absorb or endure it.

One time Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying, "If you had only known what would bring you peace -- but now it's hidden from your eyes."

What are these things to which Jesus was referring? What were his methods for dealing with people who were far from God?

First, he challenged Israel to act like Israel. If you're a child of God, act like it. If you're forgiven, act like it. Be salt. Be light. Turn the other cheek. Give. Forgive. Love God and love others for the good of the world.

Second, he welcomed sinners and ate with them.

Third, he brought those outside the covenant community inside.

He preached good news, healed the sick, delivered those who were oppressed by the devil.

And, finally, he went the way of the cross. This way involves overcoming opposition to God through voluntary suffering rather than retaliation in kind. No counter-demonstrations. No picketing. No revenge.

I think there are some things that would bring us peace today. I'll spend time over the next several days covering these topics:

  • We need to revisit our categories -- specifically who we are, who our enemy is, what our calling is, and what our methods are.
  • We need to learn the language of our culture.
  • We need to listen more than we speak.
  • We need to follow the way of the cross and be willing to suffer for the cause of Christ.

What Is Our Calling?

Many of the religious people of Jesus' day -- the Zealots and some of the Pharisees -- believed their calling was to engage in revolutionary activity against the Roman government. This was what they had in mind when they spoke of "victory" and the mission of God. Jesus challenged them by reminding them that the true calling of God's people was to bring blessing to the whole world. Way back when God first called Abram, he told him the plan was to bless all nations through Abram's descendants. This did not mean invading and expanding an earthly kingdom through acts of physical violence. Rather, it meant being the salt of the earth and offering the light of the world.

People had gotten off track. They thought they were to conquer and colonize the world. God wanted them to bring healing and salvation instead.

Sadly, the same can be said of the contemporary Christian understanding of calling. Our slogans often betray us -- particularly when we use "holy-war" rhetoric (note: there is no such concept as a "holy war" in the Bible -- even in the Old Testament, that language is never used) or the language of crusades, suggesting that our primary calling is to crush those who oppose us.

Let us never forget that our primary calling remains: be the salt of the earth and hold up the light of the world. Offer hope and healing and salvation to all who so desperately need it.

Who Is Our Enemy?

The Pharisees were really clear about who their enemy was (and, in their view, their enemy was also God's enemy). It was the Romans. It was also anyone who intentionally disregarded the Torah -- people like hookers and IRS agents and "sinners". I don't want to chase this rabbit trail too far afield, but it is interesting to me that the Pharisees frequently use this phrase, "prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners" -- as if prostitutes and tax collectors are so bad they can't even fit into the category of "sinners". And yet Jesus is known as a friend of all three.

Be befriending these people, Jesus redefined the concept of "enemy" in such a way that he ended up offending the Pharisees.

Jesus called his contemporary Jews a "wicked and adulterous generation". He said the religious leaders of his day were idolatrous and enslaved to their love of money. He suggested they might be weeds in the wheat field, bad fish caught up in the same net with good fish. It sounded as if he might think that the people of God -- worse, the leaders of the people of God -- had become the enemies of God.

It sounds as if he might agree that the world we're afraid of could be found in the church we love. (I don't know about you, but that sounds like fuzzy set thinking to me.)

G.K. Chesterton famously responded to this question posed in the form of an essay contest: "What is Wrong With the World?" He wrote two words: "I am!"

What's really wrong with the world is not that there are too many liberals out there or postmodernists in our schools and government. What is most fundamentally wrong with the world is that the people of God fail to live like the people of God.

Jesus reserved his harshest statements for those who were supposedly in a covenant relationship with God, not for outsiders. The Apostle Paul echoes this when he wrote to the church in Corinth: "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside." (1 Corinthians 5:12-13a)

Who Are We?

In Jesus' day, the people of God defined themselves by certain boundary markers: the Torah, the Temple, the Sabbath. They kept kosher, and they avoided the things that would render them unclean. These were the boundaries, the limits that let us know who is in and who is out. This is how we can tell who is one of us and who is not.

Pharisees in Jesus' day believed they could figure out if someone was a true descendant of Abraham just watching how carefully a person stayed in bounds.

When I was growing up, we had our own boundary markers. Christians did not go dancing. Christians did not drink. Christians did not see R-rated movies. Don't swear. Don't listen to heavy metal.

True story: when I was very young my family lived in Louisiana, and there was a lot of talk about how sinful "mixed bathing" was. For the uninitiated, "mixed bathing" has nothing to do with soap; it is simply boys and girls swimming together in a pool. So, our local Christian camp had separate swim times for the elementary-aged kids every summer. Mixed bathing was a sin.

Meanwhile, smoking, as in most parts of the south, was simply good for the economy. Most Sundays you could drive up to most churches in between adult Sunday School and the worship service to find a "deacon's meeting" happening in the parking lot. Smoking was not a sin.

Then, when I was about 10, my family moved to southern California. Our church had beach devotionals. Mixed bathing was part of the culture. They did not have separate beaches for boys and girls. But smoking in the land of the health-conscious granola eaters was verboten. Talk about category confusion!

Christians today still have a set of boundary markers, defining who is in and who is out. Listen to Christian radio. Liberals are out; conservatives are in. Homosexuals are out; heterosexuals are in. Pro-choice is out; anti-abortion is in.

This is bounded-set thinking, and it's been overused to our detriment.

Who was it in the New Testament who drew lines and used boundary markers -- Jesus or the Pharisees? Who said that hookers and lawyers and IRS agents would get into the kingdom before many of the most careful observers of the religious rituals?

Don't get me wrong. Jesus had some boundary markers, too. But they were very different from those of the Pharisees or many contemporary Christians. Jesus' identifying badges included things like love and faith, mercy and compassion. Jesus calls us to self-denial. A lot of Christians pretend they're denying themselves when they don't drink or smoke. But they never wanted to do those things in the first place.

Where is self-denial at the all-you-can-eat potluck?

We all use bounded sets, and we all have our boundary markers. But when we're answering the question of our identity -- when we want to know "Who are we?" -- people who follow Jesus must make sure that their identifying badges are the same ones Jesus used.

Four Really Important Questions

Clearly, both Veto and Philip have issues with the concept of "fuzzy sets". Honestly, I have issues with this as well, but I am trying to get into a way of thinking that allows me to present good news to all people -- even right-brained, eastern-thinking people who don't think in terms of bounded sets. I am also suggesting that these "fuzzy sets" can help us understand and acknowledge the fact that "the world" we fear is often contained in "the church" we love. Meanwhile, those who are "out there" may not be as far from God as many have labeled them. The Kingdom of God has broken into this world. God is on the loose and cannot be contained. His work does not often fit into our neatly devised categories, and we are called to join him in his work regardless of where and how it is occurring.

In his landmark book Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright offers a way of navigating the issues raised by set theory that is both biblical and practical. I believe this approach will keep us from many unhealthy imbalances.

Wright offers us four really important questions, and the way we answer these will make all the difference:

  1. Who are we?
  2. Who is our enemy?
  3. What is our calling?
  4. What are our methods?

When Christianity Gets Fuzzy

So far, we've talked about Christianity being defined as "in/out" and "near/far" -- but there are some people -- particularly in Eastern cultures (though this kind of thinking is on the rise in postmodern American) who don't think things have to be either/or. They want to know why can't we have both/and -- and they can point to some things in nature where things get fuzzy. For example, where does a mountain begin? Sometimes the valley and the foothills and the mountain itself all kind of blend together.

I sometimes have trouble filling out forms that ask me about my ethnicity. My mother is first-generation Mexican-American. My dad is a Scotch-Irish white guy from Rex, Georgia. What does that make me? How Hispanic do I have to be to check that box? And does it make a difference that I was adopted? My race is kind of fuzzy.

Is it possible to be both "in Christ" and "out of Christ"? I'm not so sure.

Is it possible to be both "near to Christ" and "far from Christ"? I may have parts of my life that are in strict compliance with his will for me and other parts that are at odds with him. So, I think that may actually be possible.

What about this: When did Peter become a disciple? Was it when Jesus first called him? If so, did he lose his discipleship when he denied Jesus three times?

Was it when he made his great confession of faith that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah? If so, did he lose his "discipleship" when he told Jesus to stop talking about his impending death and Jesus called him "Satan"?

Was it when he got out of the boat and walked on water? If so, did he lose his "discipleship" when he took his eyes off Jesus and began to sink?

Peter's discipleship was fuzzy. The times when he followed Jesus and the times he abandoned Jesus all kind of blur together like the valley and the foothills and the mountain.

Christians like to gather together in church buildings -- some have steeples, some look like a generic office park. When they gather like this, they sometimes like to talk about the world out there and the church in here.

But an understanding of fuzzy sets can help us know that sometimes we need to address the world in here and get the church out there.

Centered

What if, instead of drawing a boundary line between one thing and another, we drew a circle of proximity around something central. For example, say, Jesus. Here's how that might work. Typically, we think of someone being either "in" or "out" of Jesus. And, as we saw in my last post, there's some biblical language that fits that model. But we might also think of a person as being either close to or far away from Jesus.

We might even go so far as to think of someone moving closer to the center or farther away from that center.

Well...that might have some positive implications. It would acknowledge the fact that people aren't static; they tend to be trending in one direction or another.

It might also help us realize that the question isn't always, "Are you healthy today?" but "Are you headed in a healthy direction?"

It would also remind us that even a person who is headed in a bad direction might change and turn around.

As a Christian, and as one who is called to disciple other Christians, my diagnostic question would not be "Have you crossed the line?" or "Are you in or out?" Rather, it would have to include, "Where are you right now in terms of your relational proximity to the Center of our faith?" and "Are you moving closer to him or farther from him?"

We've enjoyed "step over the line" language for a long time in churches. It's probably time to recover "journey" language.

Finally, in a lot of Christian circles, the focus is on boundary markers. I knew, for example, when I was growing up that drinking, smoking and going to R-rated movies were across the line. We built fences to keep people from going "out there" to do something harmful to themselves. And there's nothing wrong, per se, with this approach. Except that it doesn't work very well, and, when it does, it doesn't seem to produce joy in people.

Also, as I grew a little older I noticed something no one ever told me before: it's possible to stay "inside the fence" and still avoid Jesus.

Exhibit A: The Pharisees -- they were as "inside" as you could get (if by "inside" we mean keeping all the rules and staying in bounds) but they were far from God.

What if we took a different approach -- an approach based less on in/out and based more on near/far?

Instead of building fences to keep people in bounds, what if we dug wells to draw people to the center? What if we gave people the idea that Jesus is, himself, a well from which all may freely drink?

I bet if we did that we'd spend a lot less time and energy on building fences, and I bet we'd all be a lot more centered.

Is "In/Out" Better than "Near/Far"?

Most of us Americans (or generally Western thinking types) are used to thinking in terms of categories. And our categories usually are bounded sets. Think of a circle or a box with clearly-drawn, fixed boundaries or borders. This means our concern is whether or not a thing is "in" the category our "out". An apple is an apple and will always be in the apple category. It might be red or greed or yellow. It might be a Fuji or a Braeburn or a Golden Delicious -- but those are subsets of the major category "apple". A potato is not an apple.

Now, we bring this kind of thinking with us wherever we go. Politics. Morals. Groceries. Cars. People. Everything seems to fit into a category. Or, rather, we have our categories fixed, and then we sort everything into this category or that one based on our opinion of whether it's "in" or "out".

We even do this with Christianity. Is this person a Christian or not? (this has been asked recently about Rob Bell or Joel Osteen or President Obama or Governor Romney).

This isn't an entirely wrong approach. The Bible uses bounded-set language. Paul talks about people being in Christ or outside of Christ. The Apostle John talks about crossing a boundary when he says, "We know that we have passed from death to life."

So, it's okay to think like this. It's even appropriate to periodically examine ourselves to make sure that we actually are in the faith. But what if there's another way of thinking? What if in/out isn't the only way to categorize things?

What if, instead of asking whether someone is in or out, we began thinking in terms of how near or how far they are to Jesus?

What if, in addition to being viewed as a bounded set, Christianity could also be viewed as a centered set?

That might change some things -- about how we view "them" and about how we view ourselves.

Stay Connected; Don't Compromise

It's pretty easy to stay connected with culture if you compromise your beliefs, values and morals. Water everything down. Explain hard things in the Bible away as culturally biased. Avoid delicate matters and focus only on core issues. Preach tolerance and never draw any lines -- let people figure out those things for themselves. There are lots of churches that do this. But they're not really telling people the truth.

On the other hand, it's pretty easy to take a stand and throw rocks at a culture from which you've completely disconnected. Rattle your sabre and rail against the sins of the world "out there" -- preach against anything and everything from gay marriage to rock-and-roll music. Tell of the evils of social drinking and R-rated movies. Bring the load and tell the world off!

We like either/or -- it's easy. Compromise. Or disconnect. Pick one or the other and you have an uncomplicated way of going about things.

And yet....

Jesus doesn't really allow us to choose like that. Jesus says (and demonstrated how to do this in his own life) that it's possible to maintain clear moral standards while also communicating mercy, grace and compassion.

Jesus sat and ate with lawyers and hookers and people who probably used terrible language and drank light beer. Those people loved Jesus -- even though they were nothing like him. These same people don't much care for his followers anymore.

The world "out there" deserves straight talk from Christians. Don't avoid or dodge what the Bible says. But maybe we should spend more energy raising the bar for those inside the church and demonstrating patience and tolerance toward those outside the church. As the Apostle Paul wrote, "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will just those outside." (1 Corinthians 5:12-13a)

Here's what our position in this world ought to look like: Stay connected; don't compromise.

Oh, and I might add one more: Calm down a little. God's in control. He doesn't need your help with keeping the world rotating. He's got a plan, and he's not worried about a thing.

Calm. Connected. No compromise. Just like Jesus.

Irrelevant or Irrational

One of the worst things that has happened over the course of my lifetime has been the rise of a subtle hostility towards the Christian faith that manifests itself by viewing Christianity as either irrelevant or irrational. For example, one former executive editor of The New York Times came to the realization that he had been a reporter for decades, carefully documenting human rights. He had covered human rights from just about every angle imaginable. Political rights. Legal rights. Civil rights. Freedom of speech. Freedom of press. But he had hardly ever written a word about the right to worship where and how our conscience leads. For him, and apparently for The New York Times, this simply was irrelevant.

Consider also our current Presidential election. Economics are endlessly discussed. Social differences. Racial and gender gaps. But the cultural elite in our nation seem to be incapable of considering the role of faith (Christian or otherwise) in the decisions of ordinary people.

On college campuses across America, the professors you meet are not so much anti-religious. It is simply understood that religious beliefs are impossible for rational beings to hold. There is even a certain nostalgia for the innocence of days gone by -- a kinder and gentler time when we were all so naive and capable of believing in supernatural things. But now that we've lost our innocence, now that we've grown up and read books and thought it through we've come to see that religion is irrational.

Of course, media coverage doesn't help, and I know I'm starting to sound like one of those uber-right-wing fundamentalists -- but this is important and I'm trying to set the stage for some productive dialogue here.

When religion does make it into the media, it is almost always in its most irrational and irrelevant forms. Christians boycotting Harry Potter, or people protesting at the funerals of soldiers "in the name of God". I read an article today suggesting that members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus probably shouldn't be allowed to serve on the House Science Committee -- since, you know, these guys don't believe in science.

As if you cannot believe in BOTH prayer AND science.

Add to all of this a seeming inability to distinguish between the terms fundamentalist and evangelical -- and you get a portrait of blind, unthinking, intolerant, bigoted people committed to a stereotyped religion. And that allows cultural elites to dismiss Christians without having to take seriously what a Christian may be saying -- without have to ask whether or not that viewpoint may, in fact, be true.

Christian, in our culture, is seen by the culture makers as either irrelevant or irrational. And I think that must change.

What in the "World"?

When the Bible uses the word "world", there are three different things it could mean. It's important for us to understand this, because Jesus was pretty clear that the world (at least in one of these senses) is hostile towards God and incompatible with his followers. We're told not to align ourselves with the world -- that friendship with this world is, in fact, enmity with God. This is pretty stern stuff, so we should be clear about what "world" Jesus is talking about.

So, was he talking about the created order? Probably not. God, we are told, "created the world and everything in it." It's okay to protect the environment -- to care about clean air and clean water -- to recycle and pick up after ourselves. Nothing unchristian or ungodly about that.

So, was he talking about the people of earth? People of various ethnicities or races? That's probably the world the Bible has in mind when it says, "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son...." It is a sad fact that most of the people on planet earth have not loved God in return, but that's not the world we are to be separated from. If God loved it enough to engage with it, we should do likewise.

There is a third way in which the word "world" is used. It describes the system of things set up on this earth that stands opposed to God and his way of life. There are cultures and societies organized around self-service, self-righteousness, self-satisfaction and self-promotion. This "world" is hostile towards anything even remotely resembling self-denial or self-sacrifice.

It is this sense of the word "world" from which we are alienated. This is the world that rejected and murdered Jesus. This world often rejects and murders Jesus' followers to this day.

Love the "world" properly defined. Withdraw from the "world" properly defined. Understand the difference.

Unwelcome

Have you ever been somewhere and felt conspicuously unwelcome? I went to a baseball game last night with my best friend. He had been invited by one of the venders from his work, so I was very aware that this wasn't just going to be your standard outing. To begin with, our tickets were for a suite! I've been to more baseball games than I can remember, but I've never sat in a suite with free food and drinks.

But an odd thing happened to me. Once everyone was introduced and the schmoozing began, it became really clear that the vendors weren't going to be able to sell me anything. Once that happened, they left me alone.

Which wasn't the worst thing, but it was a little...um...awkward. I made the best of it, but I did feel kind of unwelcome.

I sometimes wonder how someone who voted for our current president might feel visiting some churches. Or someone who struggles with same-sex attraction or gender identity issues.

I know some people who hide their political leanings when they're around their Christian friends. They don't want to be "outed" as a Democrat. I don't spend a lot of time in liberal churches, but I wonder if the closet conservatives in those environments don't feel the same: unwelcome.

Who Exactly Is My Neighbor?

One time a guy came to Jesus and asked him, "Can you boil all this religious stuff down for me?" Jesus said, "Sure, love God and love your neighbor."

The guy responded with another question, "Okay, but who exactly is my 'neighbor'?"

To answer the guy's question, Jesus told a very famous story that has become known as The Parable of the Good Samaritan. You probably know the story.

A guy is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and got mugged. There he was, stranded and beaten half to death. Several very religious people passed right by without lifting a finger to help. In fact, they went so far as to cross to the other side of the road. Maybe they wanted to pretend they didn't see him. Maybe they just didn't want to get involved. They were, after all, very religious and probably very busy people. They had the Lord's work to do.

Then a Samaritan came by and saw the guy. He stopped and did everything he could to help. He got the guy to a place where he could rest and recuperate. He even paid the guy's bill and promised to come back to check on him.

Finally, Jesus asked, "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The guy looked at Jesus and said, "Obviously, it was the one who helped him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:30-37)

What's Jesus up to with this story? He's trying to help people see that the category of "neighbor" (those whom we are called to love) is much bigger than most of us typically think.

"Neighbors" include those who don't look, think or talk like us. "Neighbors" might include people outside our immediate community -- even our immediate religious, ethnic or political community.

Loving God, according to Jesus, means loving as many different kinds of people as God loves. That means we're called to rethink who gets included in the category of "neighbor" -- it also means we should rethink who gets included in the category of "enemy".

Be Careful Where You Draw Lines

I know a lot of parents whose kids play sports. Mine don't. I can't even get them to watch most sports. I'm not bitter about being relegated to my bedroom for most of the weekends during the fall. Okay. Maybe I am. This is all beside the point! I know a lot of parents whose kids play sports. And this gets them interacting with people they might not otherwise meet. Non-church-going people. People who swear. People who drink. You know. Those people.

I heard a story recently about a pastor whose kids play sports. One Saturday afternoon, as he was walking from the parking lot toward the playing field, another dad called his name. He walked over to the other dad who gestured at a cooler in the back of his minivan. The cooler was full of beer.

"Want one?"

"Thanks, but I've got a meeting in a little bit. In fact, I'll have to leave the game early to get to it across town."

"Well, I keep this pretty full, so if you ever change your mind."

"Thanks. I'll remember!"

But that wasn't the end of the story. Another parent whose kid played on the same team (and, as it so happened, attended the church the pastor served) got wind of this and went to the league office. Apparently, there's a rule against serving alcohol within a certain distance of youth sports in their town. That may be a good rule, and I'm sure this other parent had good intentions.

League officials, however, decided to make an example out of this dad, though, banning him from the park and dismissing his son from the team.

Now, again, perhaps this is a good rule. And this tattling parent probably had the very best of intentions. However, think about the impact this had on how the cooler owner viewed Christians and church-going folks.

I'm not saying lines shouldn't be drawn. I'm not saying parents should be allowed to get drunk at children's events. Don't hear me say anything like that.

But please hear me say this: Be careful where you draw lines.

Neither Cynical Nor Naive

Because this world has fallen and become broken, there is bound to be a gap between the ideal and the actual. But nothing is beyond redemption, is it? Here’s a question for us to consider: What if everyone in Washington, D.C. was suddenly overwhelmed by the grace of God? What if all the elected officials at every level (national and local) became as serious as you are about pursuing the will of God for their lives and the lives of the people around them? Would both parties move closer together on issues? Would the two-party system be abandoned for something better? Would they all stop working in the government?

What would happen to our nation if some sort of serious spiritual awakening occurred on Capital Hill?

That’s worth contemplating, isn’t it? Heck, that’s worth praying about and working toward.

Look, I understand. Life is complicated, and in the face of such intricacies it’s understandable that some Christians will veer towards one extreme or the other. Some Christians look at the world and grow cynical. Citing disagreements among Christians, corruption among politicians, complacency among the general population and confusion on a wide assortment of issues, some say things are hopeless. In my opinion, these people show a lack of trust in God and his ability to speak to us and lead us into truth.

On the other hand, some bury their heads in the sand and pretend that life is really black and white. They believe there are quick solutions, and, thus, they are in my opinion naive and simplistic. They may even deny the problems altogether, quoting their favorite Bible verse (often ripped completely out of context) and dismissing any who disagree with them.

What is desperately needed in our world is a group of people who will work diligently at developing a Christian mind, one that will analyze the issues, reading the Bible, listening to others, employing discernment mixed with humility and taking hope-filled action.

The world has enough Chicken Little pundits, loudly proclaiming that the sky is falling and the end is near. The world also has enough Pollyanna simpletons with their heads in the clouds pretending that everything is fine when it’s clear to anyone with sawdust for brains that something’s gone terribly wrong in our world.

Neither cynical nor naive — that would be a good characterization of Christians who behave themselves well in the political arena. Jesus used to say we should be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Once again, I think he may have been onto something.

Longing for a Third Way

The fact is, there are Christians scattered all along the political spectrum, and many of those Christians vote the way they do because of their faith, rather than in spite of it. For example, a Christian may vote along conservative lines because of the way the Republican party tends to stress individual responsibility and an entrepreneurial spirit. However, some Christians are put off by the way the Republican party seems indifferent towards the weaker person who gets marginalized or buried by the fiercely competitive beast that is capitalism. On the other hand, a Christian may vote along more progressive lines because of the compassion the Democratic party has traditionally shown to the poor and the less fortunate. However, some Christians are put off by the way the Democratic party seems to smother creative enterprise with big government.

Some Republicans seem to care more about a human life before it is born into poverty. Some Democrats seem to care more about human life after it is born into poverty.

Each side attracts Christians because it emphasizes a truth about humanity — whether it is the need to give people freedom or the need to protect people from exploitation.

Each side repulses Christians when it fails to take the other side’s truth seriously. Both can be liberating; both can be stifling.

Understandably, many Christians long for a third way which would include the best of both sides. But the only way we’ll ever hope to achieve such a via media is by listening to the other side with a hefty dose of humility (realizing that our side doesn’t have a monopoly on truth) and diligently working together to pursue God’s purposes for our society.