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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Perspective on Praise [Guest Post]

Today I wanted to share with you some thoughts from a friend, Jesse Johnson who, together with his wife, lives and serves in Burundi, Africa.  Thank you, Jesse, for letting me share this with my readers!

My thought for the new year: thanking God for his composite blessings for our integrated life

"You died for my sins, Praise Jesus,
Cleansed me within, Praise Jesus."
"I got a new car, Praise Jesus,
Now I'm riding in style, Praise Jesus."
My initial thought was: "What a shallow view of spirituality!" I heard this in a gospel song televised at a black church service from the united states. The problem with this kind of language of course is that it seems to represent a materialistic view or outlook of Christianity, and it seems to be saying that spiritual life exists to benefit the physical. Or that spiritual life is here for the sake of the acquisition of material things. The next thing that bothered me was the fact that true spirituality, in my upbringing, in the way I thought was consistent with the Bible, could be summed up by this little saying, namely that "God doesn't so much want us to be happy as he wants us to be holy," and I heard that many times in my life. But the more I reflected on this and why that song bothered me so much "praise Jesus, I got a new car; praise Jesus, I got a new house," the more I realized maybe that this perspective (present in much of African-American Christianity, and to some extent in Africa as well where I live and work) isn't necessarily a health and wealth gospel (though there is plenty of that around the world). Neither is it necessarily the sign of a mere materialistic spirituality. Maybe I was too quick to judge. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe it was actually a more honest and complex perspective, a more integrated perspective.

"How on earth could you think that," you are wondering; well, let me try to explain a little bit. I'll start off by saying that I think that many of us, in our own minds, in our churches, have divorced God's area of activity from our physical lives, we've narrowed it down to our hearts and our inner beings and we haven't let him actually be Savior and Lord of our whole lives, spiritual and physical. Of course you say the spiritual is more important and I agree. Many people live for the physical plane alone, and they are lost. But for those of us who are saved, spiritually, we may have unfairly banished God from the physical realm of our lives. The best way I can think to illustrate this, is to flip the assertion of the song, "I got a new car, praise Jesus." Well, if it's unholy to thank Jesus for a new car, who are you going to thank?

Many born-again middle-class Americans are buying new cars with all the latest options and the question that comes up is this: "if it's true that God does not so much want us to be happy as he wants us to be holy, and if we should be desiring as God desires, then why do we go out and buy a new car with all the latest options in the first place?" We are obviously placing a high value on and desiring physical comfort and high standards of quality, and we, like the singer of the song are probably pleased with our purchase. Yet it won't do to praise God for it. Doesn't that seem a little hypocritical? Or maybe we don't want to associate God with our purchase because we feel a little bit guilty about it, or that he is only capable of being involved with our hearts. Well our hearts have everything to do with new cars being purchased, by the way.

God's arena we've limited to the spiritual part of our lives and we have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord so that we can have the spiritual blessings of knowing him, but then when it comes to having a new car we don't think it has anything to do with God.
So here goes the question: got a new car, who should I thank? 
Or, because we feel so guilty for having bought a new car, or because we think Jesus isn't concerned with cars, new or otherwise, we are afraid to thank Him for His provision? 

Is this perspective really better: I'm still going to buy my new car because of my desire for a comfortable, useful, and stylish mode of transportation, but it's unspiritual to praise God for it so I won't. 

There are roots to the perspective within much of African Christianity and (through preserved elements of worldview) within the African-American church as well. Within an African worldview (speaking very broadly of course):
1. The physical and spiritual realms themselves are not as separate as we would like to think in the West: in the African perspective they intermingle freely. 
2. Personhood is not a neatly divided pie chart of body/soul or body/soul/spirit as much as it is an integrated whole so that the spiritual and physical aspects of one's life overlap and are in constant and complex interplay. 
In this way you cannot talk about physical life without the spiritual dimension, or spiritual life without the physical dimension. You certainly cannot talk about them as if they were completely distinct. This seems to me to be closer to the nature of reality and personhood as described in the Bible, (though to look at the biblical evidence would take more space than my purpose here would allow) and in that way, this perspective can be instructive for our neatly filed strict western categories through which we view our Christian lives. 

So my question for you, as this year comes to an end is this: "if God has blessed you with a new (or new to you) car but you think it's unspiritual to praise him for it, who are you thanking for it?" Maybe it's time you invited God into the material world of your own desires because though he'll sift them a bit, He deserves to be there because He certainly is the source of all blessing spiritual and physical of our composite, spiritual/physical life. It's not necessarily unspiritual to shout "I got a new car, Praise Jesus."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On Birthdays and Christmas - which is better?

One of my children recently asked me, "Which do you think is better: your birthday or Christmas?"

I hadn't thought about it that much - really.  I didn't have an answer right off-hand, but on further thought, I do.

In her mind with my birthday being exactly one week before Christmas, I had a lot of fun experiences to compare.  I had never spent much time comparing.  The farthest I'd gotten in my ponderings was to realize how self-centered I tend to be and that God, in His great wisdom, allowing for my me-centeredness, placed my birthday one week before His incarnation so as to make sure I didn't dwell on my own importance for too long.

To a child, birthdays and Christmas can be extremely similar.  Both have gifts, both have treats and goodies.  Both are celebrated and anticipated.  Both are delightful and possibly stressful at the same time.  But there the similarities end.

Because Christmas is something the vast majority of the world participates in - in some way.  The festivities abound far beyond a birthday celebration.  And Christmas is about Someone Else, and not about me.

As I thought about it, I realized that what matters more to me is Christmas - hands down.  Christmas is SO much better than a birthday.  Christmas has meaning whereas a birthday just changes the number I fill in on required forms.

Today I am 37.  Big deal.  My life may have significance and meaning.  But not without Christmas.

The birth of Jesus makes all the difference in every detail and aspect of my life.  I'd even say 'blue is bluer and green is greener because the God Who made colour entered our world and came to be with us.'

Someone else said the same thing:
"Heav'n above is softer blue, Earth around is sweeter green!
Something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen:
Birds with gladder songs o'er-flow, Flow'rs with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know as now I know, I am His and He is mine."
(George Robinson)

So to celebrate my birthday I will share with you the best of Christmas:  Not only that Jesus came into our broken and suffering world, bringing hope and divine peace that only He could bring.  Not only that the marvel and wonder of God-made-flesh would be beyond our ability to grasp and comprehend -

"Our God, heav'n cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
Heav'n and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter a stable-place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ."
(Christina Rossetti)

Not only did He come.

He came in love.

And not just fluffy-feel-good love - nebulous, unspecific, without substance or meaning.

The joy of Jesus birth for me is that He was born for me.  The best news about Christmas is not that Jesus came.  But that Jesus came, and He loves me.

Christmas is awe-inspiring because God, enmeshed with humanity, becoming present in our own skin and DNA, welcomes me as His child, because He loves me.

This love,
                              this gift,
                                                    this grace 
                                  can be yours this Christmas too.