The Clash of Cultures

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Many years ago, I went to China as an English teacher with a team of college students for the purpose of sharing Christ.  My team of ten was led by Mike Kee and his wife, and we were working at a Chinese boarding school in the southernmost province for an entire school year.  For many of the group, this was their first real cross-cultural experience.  I’ll never forget the words of wisdom that Mike shared with us.  He discussed the usual stages of assimilation to a new culture: honeymoon phase, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance.  The reason that all humans go through this process when acclimating to a new culture is usually because, unintentionally, we tend to believe that the way we’ve always done things is the right way.  This is an extremely strong feeling.  There is nothing easy about the process of changing this.  However, as believers, our allegiance cannot lie with our culture.  Our allegiance can only be with the truth of Scripture.

Mike pointed out that when we evaluate the Chinese culture, there are many, many things that are biblical.  They are amazingly hospitable.  When a guest comes into their home, the guest gets the best of everything.  They practically wait on the guest hand and foot.  What a comparison to American hospitality!  Their loving ways humbled me so much while I was there.  Mike helped us to see that, while there would be many things that would seem odd, confusing, and downright wrong to us, we had to be careful not to judge them according to an American mindset.  There are many, many aspects of American culture that are not biblical in the least, but because it is familiar, we’ve never evaluated it by the standard of God’s Word.

This is especially difficult for us as believers because we are used to thinking of America as a Christian nation.  For this reason, we have come to believe that the way we do things is Christian.  The truth is the Christian faith will always be at odds with the culture—even “Christian” culture.  Culture, to some degree, teaches the necessity to submit to the pressures of the group—Scripture always tells us to submit to the sovereignty of God first.

There have been many times in the history of “Christian” culture where the group has accepted something, such as slavery, that is completely antithetical to biblical doctrines.  It has been the courageous voices of the few, however, who were unwilling to yield to the majority that helped bring about the much-needed change.  This legacy goes down through the ages of persecuted believers who stood firm on God’s Word even when pressured by “Christian” or pagan cultures.

In fact, the way of Christ is the way of the rebel, consistently going against the flow of normal human reasoning that puts its hopes on immediate pleasures and external, rather than internal, success.  And this is our true culture war—the war within ourselves.
“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”  2 Corinthians 10:3-6 ESV

And yet, these big battles cannot be fought unless we win the smaller battles against our own personal prejudices and fears.  And this battle will not even start unless we accept the fact that we are accountable for what we allow ourselves to believe and act on.  Our warfare is waged by bringing every thought in line with Scripture.  If you are a Christian, this is not optional.  Our actions flow from the truths that we believe.  If these truths do not, in fact, line up with God’s teaching, how can we hope to make choices that reflect Christ?
Oftentimes, those believers throughout history who have let atrocious things slide have done so thinking for some reason that God would not care.  I do not dare to live under that false assumption.  I tremble when I consider God’s righteous, and inevitable, judgment.  And this judgment is necessary, not cruel, for there is no way for all the wrongs in the world to be made right, unless justice is done.

With the awareness that one day we will face our Creator, we can have no other response other than to make sure that our inward culture matches the culture of the Kingdom of God.  In this vein, our lives are a constant process of re-evaluating our hearts and our attitudes making the small, but cumulative, changes that are necessary.

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Afraid to Try

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In the news, there is much to disparage the generation dubbed the millennials.  There are college campus riots, resistance to free speech, and even a revelation that half of millennials are willing to forgo their right to vote to be free of student loans.  Recently a study was released showing that these young men and women are delaying adult activities such as living on their own, getting married and having kids. Most find this behavior perplexing and have nicknamed this generation the “snowflakes.” However, I am beginning to understand the reason behind these actions and how very scared this new generation has become.

As someone who has worked with teens and 20 year-olds for almost twenty years, I’ve seen a  progression quite clearly.  The characteristics are clear: an increase in depression and anxiety, a desire to retreat with a lack of confidence in the ability to try new things, and forming of communities based on common interest but with a lack of deep relationship (oftentimes virtual). In addition, I have observed how these youth yearn for an adult to fix their problems and to protect them.

What has caused this?  I believe there are many reasons but chief among them is the exposure of these young people to censure of an enormous magnitude.

Exposed to Ridicule

When I was a child and I did something silly or worthy of criticism, I had to face the censure of a small group of people–maybe those in my class, and, at worst, my whole school. Now technology has evolved to the point where our follies can be seen practically around the world. Coupled with this terrifying thought is the idea that every person feels that, without any real relationship or authority in your life, they must share their opinion of your actions, your appearance, or your beliefs. What more unsafe world could there be?

A couple of weeks ago, I watched Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul with my kids and saw this very idea being communicated. The main character, a middle school boy named Greg, is unfortunate enough to be the star of a viral meme depicting him with a diaper stuck on his hand yelling hysterically. Because of his humiliation, his main goal throughout the whole movie is to somehow expunge his name and reputation by being in a YouTube video with a famous gamer. Of course, he is not successful and his ruin is magnified when his full name is then released and connected with the horrible meme. This is the reality in which so many are growing up. This is why they are afraid to try anything. The results of failure seem almost universal.

The church itself has not been an answer to this problem. What should be a place of safety is often a place where others are criticized for not doing Christianity correctly- or at least Christianity according to certain people’s own specific standards. This is sad because we have a truth so powerful that it changes everything–we are already loved and safe.

Our Identity Is Key

In Ephesians, Paul spends a great deal of time explaining to the church just how much Christ has changed their identity.  The Ephesians also lived in a culture where everything was permissible and the pressure for acceptance was strong.  Paul knew that these believers needed to understand who they were and that they were absolutely precious and valuable.  This understanding is also necessary for us to live at odds with our own culture.  In Ephesians 1, Paul tells us all that we are:

  • Blessed with every spiritual blessing
  • Chosen
  • Accepted
  • Redeemed
  • Forgiven
  • Receiver of an inheritance

Henri Nouwen in his book Life of the Beloved explains the difference between trying to achieve acceptance and knowing you are already loved:

As long as you live in the world, yielding to its enormous pressures to prove to yourself and to others that you are somebody and knowing from the beginning that you will lose in the end, your life can be scarcely more than a long struggle for survival…The change of which I speak is the change from living life as a painful test to prove that you deserve to be loved, to living it as an unceasing “Yes” to the truth of that Belovedness.

Understanding we are beloved means realizing we are safe no matter how well or poorly we perform. It means that we can run or crawl to the throne of grace and know we will receive help because He loves us (Hebrews 4:16). If we look honestly at ourselves, we know we need help. We fear that we will be found out for who we really are, but it’s too late–He already knows us, but He has accepted us.

A Reminder for Us All

This message is not just for the millennials, though they need to hear it repeated again and again.  We all need it.  When we can be confident in the truth of His love, we will be free to love and to take risks.  Right before Jesus was facing His greatest test, He came together with his disciples for Passover.  It is here that he humbly washes the disciples’ feet, the job which is given to the lowliest of servants.  However, John notes something that could easily be overlooked–the reason Jesus is able to serve.  In John 13:3,5 (ESV) states, “Jesus, knowing that the Father has given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper…and began to wash the disciples’ feet” (italics mine).  It was Jesus’s confidence in His identity that gave him the ability to serve.  He knew to Whom He belonged.

We too need to know where we have come from, where we are going, and to Whom we belong.  It is when we grasp this that we are freed to not walk in fear, worrying about the censure of the world.  It is here that we can walk forward as more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). And I believe that if this next generation takes hold of this truth, there will be no stopping them!

 

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An Ending to Remember

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There are times when a book ends so terribly that I have to make up a new ending in my mind.  They either don’t pull all the loose ends together or it ends in an improbable way. Though I thoroughly despise an ending that really isn’t an ending, I am equally unsatisfied with an ending that is a bit too happy.  Something rings false in a story that doesn’t jive with reality.  While a certain part of us might appreciate the lack of suffering, the story will have no lasting impact because we know that is not how it really works.  And though we’d hate to admit it, a certain amount of loss is necessary to make the result valuable.  This is because we know intrinsically that in life there are costs for things–even good things.

I have recently been reading through the book of Acts and came across the powerful description of Peter’s deliverance from jail.  It starts off with tragedy though:

About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church.  He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. (Acts 12: 1-5)

A Miraculous Intervention

This is when the miraculous happens.  In the middle of the night, Peter is led out of prison into freedom.  His escape is made even more dramatic by the incredulous response to those praying so sincerely.  

And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!”  But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. (Acts 12: 13-16)

A Horrible Turning Point

Finally, he is able to come in the house, and he tells his story of being led out by two angels.  Everyone is excited and rejoicing. Peter then leaves to tell others of what has happened.  Unfortunately, the story does not end here:

Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter.  And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. (Acts 12:18)

I don’t think I had ever noticed this terrible detail before.  It appears that Peter’s pardon is another man’s death sentence.

We might be tempted now to question God about this.  These men were innocent–how could He allow them to be punished for something out of their hands?  And also what about James the brother of John who was also put to death.  Why wasn’t he rescued?  Was he not as valuable?

All of these are reasonable questions, and, I can bet, ones that niggle at the hearts of many believers.  We are often afraid to wrestle with these thoughts; after all, our hope depends on the goodness of God.  If He is not good, then we are all doomed.

Questioning God

I cannot say that I have the answer to these questions.  I have a beginning though. Many of us have seen Bruce Almighty starring Jim Carrey.  In this movie, he too was frustrated with the way God was running things.  Bruce rants and rails at God and finally God, in the form of Morgan Freeman, shows up.  He tells Jim Carrey’s character, Bruce, that he can have a chance to try being God since he was so confident he could do better.  The rest of the movie, in true Jim Carrey style, is a humorous depiction of Bruce’s struggles and subsequent lesson in humility.  One scene I find particularly amusing is Bruce’s attempt to answer prayers.  Sitting at a computer, he receives millions of prayers in the form of e-mails.  At first he starts going through them one by one trying to decide how to answer them.  Finally, annoyed and frustrated, he just answers yes to all of them.  The result however is very telling.  For example, a large number of people win the lottery.  But because there are so many, each of their earnings is very little.  Everyone’s “yes” is not the blessing one would expect.

Why is that? It’s because we don’t really understand how tied together all our lives are.  We think that a blessing for us won’t cost anyone anything.  But we can’t know that.  The early church praying for Peter’s release couldn’t imagine this was a death sentence for others.   I’m reminded of the butterfly effect theory where the beat of the wings of a butterfly on the other side of the world can cause a monsoon here. While this thought is a bit intimidating, we must remember that we cannot hope to be responsible for all these possibilities. We just have to trust the one who is. The only person in the entire universe able to handle the delicate fine tuning of the universe and of human will is God alone.

This is seen very clearly in the book of Job.  He too is questioning God’s management abilities.  And though Job, to us, seems to have all the right in the world to scrutinize God’s unfathomable ways and to hold Him to account, the book ends in a surprising way.  After a multitude of chapters of Job defending himself against the attacks of his friends, God shows up.  

His words are powerful:  “Dress for action like a man; I will question, and you will make it known to me.  Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements–surely you know!”  (38:3-5) The rest of the conversation goes very similarly.  God has patiently let Job make his accusations and now Job must stand before God’s questioning.

Finally, Job humbly responds: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  (42: 3-6)

Humbled Before God

While there are many who would be offended by a pronouncement like this, I think we would all do well with a little humility.  God’s reminder that Job cannot possibly understand the many workings of the universe helps Job gain the perspective he needs to view the circumstances of his life.  

Our point of faith simply comes down to whether or not we trust God to be good.  If we do not, we are free to reject Him and His ways.  If we do, however, believe He is good, that He has demonstrated His sacrificial love on the cross, then we must use this faith to trust His word and his actions.  We must choose to obey Him even when it doesn’t make sense to us.  We must give HIm the freedom to move in our lives in ways that are confusing, even painful.  

Here is the crux of faith and obedience.  And while we might long for the manufactured happiness of Hallmark stories to be enjoyed and forgotten, we are instead offered the multidimensional impact of an epic to be told throughout the generations. We cannot imagine the story that God is writing with our lives, but we can be confident that the ending is going to make it all worth it.  

 

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The Adventure of a Lifetime

There’s something about the word “adventure” that has transformative powers. You could be lost in the woods at night and terrified at every unidentified noise, but, if you call it an adventure, suddenly it is the stuff memories are made of.

It’s amazing the difference a little perspective makes when evaluating situations. And the wonderful thing is that we have control over our perspectives. We cannot control many events of our lives, but we can control how we view things.

The Biblical Perspective

For example, James tells us to “count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). This is all about perspective. He isn’t really telling us to enjoy the suffering and trials we will be experiencing in life. Rather, he is telling us to see the bigger picture of what is happening.

Read the rest of the article here on Daily Paradigm Shift’s site.

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The Reason Why

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Right now, I am neck deep in the middle of my Master’s degree in Professional Writing.  I am pursuing a dream of mine, and I’m working hard day by day to get there.  The problem is that, in the middle of this, I’ve stopped loving writing.  

Part of it is a continuous problem of comparison–reading other people’s works and being amazed and swept away with the beauty of their prose and the seemingly effortless way they bring the reader along with them.  For me, every word is drawn out of my body like a splinter withdrawn from the skin–in pain and fear.  

The other part is from the sheer overwhelming nature of going to school full time while working.  The main writing I do now is to meet the requirements of my classes.  Write five pages about how you will implement writing strategies in your classroom.  Write 15-20 pages about a grammatical concept that is interesting to you (???).  The words are demanded, and I reciprocate, but I’m left high and dry when I sit down to write for God. Ultimately, that is my dream and my desire–to talk about Him, to show forth His glory.

Doesn’t the same thing though happen in our relationships with God?  We start off doing things to know Him more, to be closer to Him, but, after a while, these things we do become a part of the grinding machine of life, and, suddenly, we forget why we’ve been doing it all along.  We may even feel a bit bitter about the drain on our lives and resources.

We’ve forgotten our why.

It’s easy to do.  Why doesn’t seem to matter when you are getting up and going to work.  Why doesn’t seem to matter when you lay down on your bed, exhausted from the day.  But, we know, deep inside that it does matter–not because it affects the process of our days, but because it gives meaning to the process.  So, how can we recover our why?  By listening for His voice, maybe in places you wouldn’t expect.

This morning I was reading about an eccentric, Italian monk who began a monastery in the middle of the Syrian desert.  It’s a place where all are welcome and can stay as long as they want.  They practice the spiritual disciplines of silence, contemplation, prayer, and hospitality. This sounds spiritual and appealing, but we cannot always get away from our daily lives to find that quiet place, so Father Paolo also teaches the “theology of the sacred encounter.”

The sacred encounter is the idea that we can encounter God as we meet with other people, read good books, go through the traditions of church and prayer and Bible Study.  He states, “Meetings [are] our encounters with Christ himself, who came to us in a body” (“An Impossible Hope”).  These can happen at any time and with any person–we can live in holy expectation that the next person we talk to, the next article we read, the next service we attend could be an encounter with the divine.  

What if He is waiting for you to see Him?  

We can be hopefully expectant, but we must also be observant.  His presence is an invitation.  Henri Nouwen elaborates by stating, “by presence I mean attentiveness to the blessings that come to you day after day, year after year..They are there, surrounding us on all sides. But we have to be present to them and receive them.  They don’t force themselves on us.  They are gentle reminders of that beautiful, strong, but hidden, voice of the one who calls us by name” (Life of the Beloved).

God is not just found in “religious things” as though those things could contain Him.  We must open our eyes wide to see the bigness of our God.  The God of our vast creation.  The God of the smallness of our cells.  The God who was of broken body and broken spirit, just so we could take that first shuddering breath of new life.

As I write this, I am invigorated to keep going.  He is with me now.  I can feel His presence; His hand on my shoulders telling me that I am not alone and that He loves me.  My writing may not pierce like the staccato rhythm of Hemingway or strip away misconceptions like the distinguished Flannery O’Connor.  I have my own voice that I must speak, and so do you.  

And it may also be that some of those things you have to do, but are not passionate about, really are keeping you on the path towards your goal.  I know God has told me to complete this degree, and even though I am not passionate about the steps of this current journey, I know they are leading me toward my goal of one day being a professional writer in some way.  This is true of our spiritual disciplines.  We may not enjoy each step of the process of sanctification, but the end result and goal of relationship with God is worth it.  

And there is always the hope for those moments of joy that defy explanation, those holy encounters, when God shows up in a transformational way.  As long as we are waiting expectantly for Him to show up with our eyes wide open, we can feel confident that though the way is weary, we will be able to press forward towards the goal remembering why (and for Whom) we are doing it.  

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