The Paradox of Invoking Jesus’ Name on Acts of Kindness

During our recent  snowpocalypse one of our neighbors had just had a knee replacement and the other is pregnant and the storms at times hit when her husband was not home. As a result I had three houses, driveway entrances and curbs to deal with. No big. That’s what good neighbors are for. I was thankful for the hours logged in at PlanetFitness.  And hot coffee. My neighbors were effusive in their expressions of thanks.

It got me thinking about ‘good deeds’ and ‘acts of kindness’. Many evangelicals feel that they should dutifully invoke Jesus’ name over acts of kindness. As in, “I’m doing this in Jesus’ name” or “well, it’s what Jesus would want me to do” or “Well, I’m a Christian” or “it’s what Jesus would do” aka WWJD. All that is well and good, and true to boot. I have enormous respect for what I am told is Samaritan’s Purse’s forthright tag-line: “We are doing this in Jesus’ name.”

However, there seems a paradoxical, counter-productive downside to me in everyday  life.  If we invoke Jesus’ name over some of these acts, what are we implying? Do people hear us saying “Well, I wouldn’t do this for you, except it’s my religious duty as a Christian” or “I’m doing this because I feel pressure that Jesus wants me to” or “I don’t care about you enough to do this on my own, my religion prescribes it” or “I have ulterior motives in helping you: I’m hoping that by doing this, you will see that Christianity is a good thing and maybe come over to our side”? And how does that make people feel about our help?

While it may be true that some people would not shovel a neighbor out if they weren’t a Christian (some people are certainly kinder than others by temperament), I suspect it’s often counter-productive to talk this way. It would be hard for me to sort out why I am the kind of person happy to help someone out;  I became a Christian when I was 12 and it has certainly been the primary influence on my development. However, the fact is: I didn’t shovel my neighbors out as a sense of religious duty, nor with ulterior motives, nor out of guilt, nor because I thought God was breathing down my neck, nor because I felt bad Jesus died for my sins, nor because I thought it would earn me points in heaven, (now points on an elk tag draw would be another story), nor because I wanted the label ‘Christian’ to look good, nor because I asked myself WWJD. No, I shoveled them out because they needed help and I was there. It needed done. These are people I care about. No big.

The paradoxical, counter-productive part of invoking Jesus’ name is when we do so and people think  something like “wow, they wouldn’t have helped me because they care about me, or out of the goodness of their heart, they did it as a religious obligation.” And what does it say when a person who is NOT a believer in Jesus is willing and happy to shovel someone out? How about when a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or NASCAR fan shovels them out, without any faith in Jesus? If you ask me, it makes it look like they are good enough to do it on their own, and I need Jesus to raise me to a Hindu, Muslim or NASCAR level of goodness.  Invoking Jesus’ name, often done in attempt to communicate something good, may well communicate something else.  I would hate for my neighbors to say to themselves,  “Gosh, I would have shoveled Todd out just out of the goodness of my own heart and because he’s my neighbor, but he only does it because of his religion.” An act of religious zeal or duty, not genuine goodness or authentic compassion.

Ironically, there are times, I think, when the better witness for Jesus, is to not invoke His name. To make it out as if Jesus made you do it may send the message that you are less morally developed as a Christian, rather than more.

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The Rabbit Trails of Revival and Anointing

A friend of mine recently described to me the experience of attending a church which was obviously losing its grip on its members. Week after week, year after year, the congregation was exhorted to “keep coming or you will miss God’s anointing! It’s right around the corner, we can feel it! God’s going to do something big! If you leave and go somewhere else, you’ll miss it!” This was accompanied by long prayers begging for God’s anointing.

I could relate. I grew up in an atmosphere where ‘revival’ was described and looked for in the exact same way. It was always felt that it was ‘just around the corner.’ “God’s going to do something big soon – I can feel it! We’re about to have revival!” This too was accompanied by lots of prayers for revival, eventually books and prescriptions were written for how to get God to pour out revival.  Previous revivals in history were studied to find the common elements – the key to unleash the power. Translation: if we would just get a little more earnestness, more committed, repent more, or develop some other spiritual attribute, God would finally relent of his chintzy, cheapskate tight-fistedness with his revival coin.

Sorry, I’m not buying.

The assumptions behind all of this are full of holes. It reminds me of the phrase used by Nazarene theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop forty years ago: “Credibility Gap”. First, what’s wrong with what happens in the faithful gathering for worship, week after week, year after year? For thousands of years God’s people have been sustained, nurtured, strengthened and empowered through gathering together for the reading of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, the worship of God in song, praying together, and – not least – the community of togetherness in Jesus’ name. What’s lacking in that? The frantic pleas for revival and anointing imply that that’s not enough;  there’s a lack, a deficiency. All that happens in weekly worship: the lives changed, the attitudes transformed, the newness of life poured out, the life trajectories re-directed, the joy imparted, the welcome of new people with authentic love, the strengthening, encouraging, purpose, mission, community – nope –  apparently not good enough. Second, all this begging for revival and anointing  acts like God is really hard to convince, doesn’t like to part with his revival stash, or is bound by a notebook full of addendums and legal restrictions regarding when and when not He can do His thing.

Seriously?

In the sophisticated modern church of the second millenium, here’s what this tends to look like: pastors running around always working things up for the next push, the next event, the next program, the next Big Thing that will finally be the magic button to get their church to be whatever it isn’t, and flood their doors with urgent seekers. As soon as they finish the current  Big Deal, they start running toward the next one, rounding up (tired) ‘volunteers’ and urging people to give their spare time to this next big event they imagine will be the equivalent of rubbing the Genie’s Lamp of Church Growth.

I get tired just describing it. And I’m not going to spend my life doing any of that.

I don’t think God is reluctant with His unction. I don’t think He’s bemused watching us scramble trying to find the hidden cheese of revival in His maze.  I don’t think there is ANYTHING wrong with what God does week after week in the regular Sunday morning gathering of His people. New peoples’ lives are being visibly transformed;  longtimers are sustained, helped, encouraged; people are called into ministry; new ministries begin; people hear a call to pastoral leadership, get educated and start churches or join the work here; there is nothing wrong with what goes on.

What I do think is happening is that both Nazarenes and Charismatics can look back within living memory to the beginnings of both of our movements. The enthusiasm, newness, Big Push for the common goal and comradery of a fresh vision that characterize almost any kind of new movement, religious or not, gets longed for again, not to mention idealized. But anyone familiar with the sociological lifespan of movements knows that they don’t stay in that phase. Looking back longingly to the early part of the organization’s developmental phase is to miss out on the benefits of the current part of the lifespan. It’s like a parent looking back so longingly at the toddler phase of their children’s lives that they fail to enjoy them in their 20s.   They miss out on what is in front of them. You may have noticed that the 20-30 somethings that left evangelicalism for the Mainline churches (or started their own), don’t wring their hands week to week for revival or anointing.  They enjoy what the community of faith is and does.

I don’t think we are going to manipulate God into when He does extraordinary acts of revival.  History shows that if we think there’s a formula for that, we’re mis-interpreting those Bible verses. If it were as simple as us pulling the right levers on the heavenly machine, we’d have had God dancing to our tune like a puppet long, long ago.  I’m not going to wring my hands about what God does in church, wishing for something else. What He does with us week after week, just as He has for thousands of years, is a profound good. There’s no deficiency.

Donald Miller and church

Years ago Donald Miller wrote a book called Blue Like jazz. It’s nothing like the movie. At all. But anyway, it was a seminal look into a generation of evangelical kids tired of evangelicalism. Very valuable book. It had many ah ha moments in it when I said “ahhh, that’s what they were thinking… ok.”

Recently Don blogged something about not going to church and it set the evangelical world on fire. It was all predictable and old news. On the one side Don said, look the way church has evolved in America is a different animal than church in the New Testament, going to church isn’t the same thing as Christian community, and people being paid by today’s church have a vested interest in it staying the same and you coming. The other things he expressed were old news to anyone familiar with his generation. And most all of their feelings are legit. I mean, do you know HOW MANY people out there have had the worst possible experiences AT CHURCH and CHURCH has been their biggest barrier to relationship with God? I wouldn’t expect this to set the blogosphere on fire.

Except.

Something else predictable. The evangelicals, sold hard core on the current mode of church (whichever one they happen to do), brought their usual list of responses. “You’ll go to hell if you don’t go to church; it’s spiritual suicide; the Bible says to; it’s about God, not you, etc etc etc.” Boring.

It’s no wonder the emergent/postmodern  crowd is largely done with the modern evangelical church and started their own stuff or went to the mainline Protestant or Catholic options. It’s the same old lines, and an apparent total disconnect with why people get tired of the modern church. I’ve had really good experiences with church down through the years, and I pastor one of the best ones I’ve ever seen in action, but I’d have to be crazy to not understand the postmodern problem with church. I’m not gonna wax eloquent on all that, but I will just say this. On this whole “it’s about God, not you” thing… GOD is certainly not so co-dependent, insecure and unsure of Himself that He needs us to come together and tell Him how great He is and that He really will be ok, and make Him feel better about Himself on a regular basis. If God WERE that insecure, He wouldn’t be worth following. Church, it turns out, is not for God’s sake – it IS for ours. And the good of the world God loves.

As one good man said, “I don’t believe in organized religion. I believe in religion organizing for the common good.”

Is the Bible’s Story What We Say It Is?

The way that the Bible’s story is often pitched in evangelicalism is that the point of life is that everyone has sinned, thus infuriating God and causing Him to send everyone to hell, and you have to ask Jesus to forgive you or you won’t go to heaven. So the point of life is actually afterlife, getting to heaven. Sometimes this story-line is expressed with an even more sinister tone:  a friend of mine the other day summed it up when asked, What’s the point of earth in this version: “just a testing place to see if God will let you into heaven.”

But I noticed some time ago that if you read the Old Testament you would never come away with this story line. Reading the Old Testament, the point of it all doesn’t come across that everyone is sinful and God will take you to heaven if you ask forgiveness. In the OT, the storyline goes more like this: life on earth is being ruined by violence, oppression and injustice. God wants people to live uprightly, the opposite of those things, and to follow Him and His ways for a good life here. Jesus, when asked, summed up the OT with “loving God” and “loving your neighbor.” The point is explicitly summed up in verses like Micah 6: 8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

This is a story about life on earth and how God wants it lived, and that the problem is the destruction of shalom here on earth. This is not a story about earth as a testing ground to see who makes it to heaven.

Consider the following books and ask yourself if their message is about making it to heaven: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy? Chronicles? Kings? The Psalms? Esther? Jonah?  The Prophets? Hmmmm.

As for after-life, in the Old Testament we get a comment about resurrection in Job, a two verse mention of the Great Judgment in Daniel, and a handful of verses in Psalms about escaping Sheol or dwelling with the Lord all my days.

The Old Testament seems to be about life on earth. But we talk like the New Testament is about life after earth. Why the switch of subjects? Is there really a switch? Or have we simply prioritized some texts, skipped over or misread others, and assumed things about phrases like ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ which are different than what Jesus actually meant? If we assume Jesus came as an answer to the problem presented in the Old Testament, why do the New Testament answers (as we typically discuss them) sound like they are about a different problem?  Some have suggested that we have gotten this point-of-life-is-escaping-hell-and-gaining-heaven from the soaking Christian theology got via passing through Greek philosophy. Perhaps we’ve developed a Christianity focused so much on afterlife that we’ve missed the point of much of the Bible.

Why N.T. Wright is the Most Important Theologian Alive Today

N.T. Wright, former Anglican bishop of Durham, England, is the leading New Testament scholar in the world. He has been at the front of historical Jesus research for a generation as well at the front of Paul scholarship during the same time. It isn’t every generation of Christians who gets A) a world-class Bible scholar who is also B) a passionate, evangelical follower of Jesus, C) a very skillful writer with wit and color,  and D) an extremely wise person who can remain gracious and Christlike in the midst of controversy. Many generations get people who are 2 or 3 of these things together, rarely all four. You know you are on your game when publishers come to you to ask you to write the 21st century version of C.S. Lewis’ works (Simply Christian as the Mere Christianity for the postmodern world). There are certain Christians whose life’s work affects our understanding of the Gospel for a generation, or even multiple centuries. Wright’s work falls at least into the first category.

Specializing in the literature of the first century, Wright counsels us to read the New Testament in light of how people were writing and talking during that same time period. What were their expectations? What did they mean by certain words? How did they understand the Old Testament? Without careful attention to such things, Wright reminds us we are likely to simply read our own assumptions and theological ideas into the text. Or read the ideas of our favorite Reformation theologian from 400-500  years ago into the text.

Wright’s scholarship – and its ramifications – concerning Jesus, Paul, the Kingdom of God, and what the Gospel is even about, are landmark, groundbreaking. Entire sections of Scripture, Wright contends, have been mistaken to be about one thing when they are really about another. The results are big. For example, if you think Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings are about the end of the world, you expect certain things, the kinds of things prophecy preachers love to talk about. And these theological assumptions have deep social-political real world results:  fast-tracking weapons to the Middle East makes sense in that worldview, you are contributing to fulfilling prophecy! (BTW Is it alarming to you that evangelical church attendance correlates in statistical studies with approving of the use of torture?) However, if you think Jesus’ words are about the destruction  of Jerusalem in 72 AD and they are NOT about the end of the world, a whole other future comes leaping out of the pages of Scripture, a future written about, but which has been skipped over and ignored, due to the way we interpreted Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings.

For those who have inherited a Christianity which has not been able to answer adequately certain kinds of questions, or gives answers that are largely unsatisfying, N.T. Wright might be a life saver. Among other things, he opens the door to a larger, grander Gospel than many people grew up with.