A Journey of Sacrifice

“You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.” (*The Hobbit*, 35)

This is my favorite quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s *The Hobbit*, because it communicates the very thing that makes an adventure great: sacrifice. Bilbo is suddenly presented with an opportunity for adventure. He’s used to living in a cozy hobbit-hole, with the comforts of home at his fingertips. Yet something deep within him prompts him to take the opportunity and go on a journey with companions who are practically strangers. He does not quite know what he’s getting into and he suspects there will be perils ahead, but he still chooses to go. Less than five minutes into the journey he remembers his pocket-handkerchief and wants to turn back. It is at this point that Dwalin, a no-nonsense dwarf, reminds Bilbo that if he wants to be a part of the adventure, he’s going to have to leave the comforts of home entirely behind him. Bilbo is reminded to anticipate sacrifice if he wants to get where he’s going.

I’m not going to say that the Christian life is like an adventure –after all, adventures are temporary. You return to the the comforts that you sacrificed once the adventure is over. The Christian life is not called the Christian adventure for a reason. It does not last for a few months and then come to an end. I will, however, say that this line from the Hobbit reminds me of the sort of sacrifice which Paul explains in Romans chapter 12. The Apostle writes:

> I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.1-2)

Paul is instructing believers to seek a radical transformation. When he tells us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, he means that we are no longer serving our flesh but giving ourselves to God. The world tells us it is okay to pursue our sinful desires. Paul is telling us to leave the world’s standards behind and change our mindset. If we want to be obedient we have to go all the way. We cannot be of Spirit with a mindset and a desire that is of the world. Yes, sacrificing our desires is uncomfortable and sometimes feels uncertain, but it is necessary if we want to get where we are going.

Returning to The Hobbit, it appears that Bilbo’s sacrifices actually improve him. Prior to his journey, he knew little of what happened beyond the borders of the Shire. He was content with his pipe, his food, and peace and quiet. He never had any need to exercise courage or push himself beyond his comfort zone. He learns with every step of the journey that there is more to him than he thought. He has a courage and strength within himself that brings him to confront incredible foes. In the end, he returns to the Shire as a changed Hobbit, with a beautiful story to tell.

It is okay if sacrifices scare you. You should feel a tinge of fear when you read the aforementioned line from The Hobbit, mostly because you can sense the risk and peril that is coming. You might feel a tinge of fear when you read Romans 12.1-2 as well. Saying no to a desire is painful. Christians know that they are on a life-long journey in which they will have to give up their desires. However, we can be comforted in the fact that as we make sacrifices we are being transformed and prepared for a future glory. Sacrifice is painful but necessary, frightening but transforming. As you strive to sacrifice the desires of the flesh, remember that you are on a journey in which you are becoming closer and closer to God. Not to mention, your journey ends with an eternity spent in his presence. With this hope in mind, press on in your journey of sacrifice.

Why YOU Should Love the Homeless–Breaking the Cycle of Rejection

This past Saturday, my friends and I met Leonard, one of many living on the streets of LA, as we were walking in downtown.  Leonard started a conversation with us after we smiled and nodded at him when we were walking by.  Leonard was different because he enthusiastically responded to our small acknowledgement.  Most of the other people we encountered simply stared or totally ignored us.  This “hardness” is a natural result of their homelessness.

In order to survive, humans “harden” themselves to adverse circumstances. This hardness, or choosing not to care, protects from potential and constant disappointment.  In Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s father tells her again and again, “I cannot love thee.” At first, this made Catherine cry, but “then, being repulsed continually hardened her, and she laughed if I told her to say she was sorry for her faults(p43).”  Being rejected again and again hurts.  Better to be “safe” and closed off than to risk rejection by allowing other people’s actions to have sway.

Proverbs, too, sheds insight on this human response. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” (13:12)  For people like Catherine, the idea is better to not hope at all than to hope and lose. In Catherine’s case, she initially craves her father’s love, but continual rejection leads her to adapt in a way so as to protect herself from continual hurt. So she chooses not to hope for her father’s love so as not to be constantly hurt by hope deferred.  For others, like Leonard, hope deferred can relate to a much broader spectrum such as hope of acceptance in society, a job, value, a place to live, or simply a place to stay the night. Rejection is an everyday occurrence in the life of the homeless, primarily that from passerby.  No wonder so many we passed simply ignored us—they are used to being ignored so choose to ignore so as to protect themselves.

Our actions have a cyclical affect.  Personal rejection leads to your rejection of others.  Being often ignored causes you to often ignore others.  Our own experience of the world is drastically shaped by other people’s actions toward us.  Just as bad put in, causes bad to be put out, a “good” action will likely have a similar effect.  Paying for a stranger’s coffee one morning will likely make them much more inclined to be extra nice and generous towards other people that day.  Our talking to Leonard (hopefully) brightened his day.  However, there is a substantial difference between short and long term cyclical effects.

It will take much more than a brief encounter to reach someone hardened by a life-time of abuse.  The Proverbs concludes by saying, “But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” The desire to be loved and accepted is at the core of our being.  However much we may pretend otherwise, or harden ourselves from this desire, it is impossible to be “okay” without feeling loved and accepted.  This feeling can come in many different ways—from a stranger, from God, from a significant other, from a friend.  Constant love is needed to break a cycle of constant hate.

We cannot provide a constant source of love for every hurting individual we meet.  But we can constantly be showing love to every individual we meet.  We are able to do this because of Christ’s love in us.  We love because He loves us.  The ultimate fix to despair is the Gospel. I like to think that Leonard was different—”soft,” receptive, open— because he had the Spirit of God dwelling inside of him.  During our conversation, Leonard shared some verses he had just memorized that day.  Leonard had an eternal hope that affected his perspective.  Yes, his earthly circumstances did not suck any less because of his faith.  But his hope-based perspective allowed him to face the world with expectation instead of deferred born complacency.

This is not to say we should not be concerned about very tangible and earthly needs.  We are very much supposed to be concerned about physical brokenness! We can often love the hurting best by providing for them in physical ways.  While I am not sure this was the best possible way to love Leonard, my friends and I chose not to give him money but instead buy him some food from a nearby store.  I would have felt very convicted if I prayed for Leonard without addressing his physical needs (James 2:16).  Providing for the hurting in physical ways often substantiates our verbal proclamation of love.

Even though most people did not respond to my smile or friendly hello, I still think it was right to do it.  If I stopped saying hello simply because I would get spurned, then I, too, would become a part of the destructive cycle.  Don’t let other people’s responses determine your actions.  We are called to be cycle breakers!  Wherever you go, whether it be walking down the streets of LA or in your office, look for opportunities to show Christ’s love—both through word and deed.  Whether it be a simple smile and a hello or buying a meal for a person, your small action can help break the cycle of a hope-deferred existence.

*Quotes taken from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” Penguin Classics.

*Image via Wikimedia Commons

In Defense of Denomination

There is one Body, and there is one Church.

There is really no way to get around it—it’s right there in Scripture, coming from the mouth of Saint Paul himself.

But unity doesn’t equate to homogeny.

This is an issue that the Church universal has struggled with before Christ was even crucified. When the disciples ran to Jesus whining, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us,” Jesus did not respond and say “Well, then make him a convert and be sure that his theology is aligned with yours.”

Instead, he said, “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you.”[1]

It’s funny to think that the Son of God didn’t care what clique the man belonged to; he didn’t care if he worshipped with hymns or a full band; he didn’t care whether or not the man believed in a God who might have formed the earth through evolution. Jesus didn’t even care that the man wasn’t in his immediate group of followers.

The only thing that mattered was that he obviously believed in the power of the name Jesus Christ. And instead of saying, “Bend him to your own personal beliefs,” Christ replied, “Let him be. He is not hurting you and he believes in the power of my name.”

While the matter seems cut-and-dry in this instance (as with much of what is obvious in Scripture) this is a tragically contentious point. In the midst of major and minor denominations that cater to any whim, fancy, or preference, many in the Church have been quick to forget that there is one Christ, and there is one God. And perhaps one of the most dangerous things we can do as a Christian is to assume that we have figured God out—that our human minds have truly encompassed the magnitude of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The minute we preach our denomination over our Christ, we have committed blasphemy, for we have shaped God in our own image, and are telling people to worship him. At the moment we force theology over the unimaginable love of that Jewish Rabbi, we are idolaters, erecting a golden calf and dancing around it like a bunch of loons.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a definite line that we can call heresy, but only that we need to be careful where we draw it. There are many voices within the Church that can be heard calling for a single, unified Body, when what they mean is a single, homogenized congregation—a church stripped of the intricacies of a Body and reduced to a hand, or a foot. It would be akin to saying that America should be reduced to a single state.

Instead, let the Church stand in defense of denomination, and not as something to be looked down upon. Many of the differences of the Church only serve to shore it up against attack and illness. When the limp-wristed theology of Joel Osteen or Rob Bell is preached, the commanding figure of a Pope—a Pastor of pastors—is incredibly useful in correcting what is clearly a misuse of the incredibly useful message of Christ. When Church leadership becomes corrupted or misleading, the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura can help right a listing ship that may steer towards human teaching instead of Divine wisdom. When people become flippant or lazy in their worship, the solemnness and intentionality of Orthodoxy can step in to fill the gap.

And this doesn’t even begin to cover personal preference. When the Samarian woman asked Jesus where one should worship God (being that the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem and the Samaritans elsewhere) Jesus does not even address the question, for to do so would only further enhance a cultural and religious chasm. Instead, he replies with all the depth and simplicity only the simple Carpenter could manage, “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.”[2] The emphasis here isn’t on the differences between Jews and Samarians (although it is addressed), but it instead points to dominance of the Father over all said differences. It doesn’t matter what the House is made of, as long as it can withstand the storm outside.

And practically speaking, the call for a homogenous church is simply foolish; when the Lord returns, there will perhaps be a consistency in the way worship is conducted—it is entirely His prerogative. But until then, how can I—a young man raised in the Alaskan cold—expect an African, or a Filipino, or even another young man from Georgia, to have the same church experience I do? Just because a person doesn’t like grape juice Communion doesn’t make them wrong; just because someone abstains from alcohol entirely doesn’t make them right. It just makes them different. Our God is the God of nations, and we must be careful that when we say “our” God, we are not implying ownership.

And our differences—miraculously—are what have allowed the Church to stand and grow. The diversity that our variations provide help guide and balance the Christian community. There is a reason that purebred dogs succumb to disease and illness and die younger than their fellow mutts. And if the Church is anything, it is a beautiful collection of mutts, from the 12 Disciples to the modern Church.

For there are many parts to the Body, but there is one Head, and no man should be disdained for being a foot, and no foot should criticize the hand for having fingers. If we believe—truly believe—in Jesus Christ, we are freed from our endless arguing and spatting. We don’t have to worry about being infallible; we only have to trust that Christ stands with his family—with the wise and slow, weak and strong, Old Earth and Young Earth folk. And we all stand beneath him: one Body, under God, indivisible and wonderfully different—a collage of grace and love.

[1] Luke 49-50

[2] John 4:23

When Gandalf Goes Down with the Balrog: Or, When My Pastor Falls into Sin

Let’s just call him Pastor Bob. In church, he was Gandalf. Gandalf could do anything! Church cannot go on without him! What do you do when the Sin Balrog takes down Pastor Bob? Whether it was embezzlement, pornography, adultery, child molestation, addictions, or any one of a thousand things, it was big and you know that Pastor Bob the Grey will not be coming back as Pastor Bob the White. Maybe the Sin Balrog went down with Pastor Bob, but orcs and demons abound and you have to run on — without Pastor Bob. Continue reading When Gandalf Goes Down with the Balrog: Or, When My Pastor Falls into Sin

The Murder of the Homeless & Social Merit

Do we perform acts of kindness towards others because they deserve it or because they need it?

In case you haven’t heard, a homeless man was recently murdered in New York City after trying to help a woman in the middle of being assaulted. Brian Levin reports:

In New York surveillance video captured a homeless good Samaritan come to the aid of a woman being attacked by a knife wielding assailant, only to be stabbed himself. While not a hate crime, the bleeding wounded man was casually ignored by passersby who failed to do anything to assist him as he lay dying in the street.

Levin comments that though this instance isn’t a hate crime because the perpetrator was initially after the woman, Levin states that many hate crime scholars are regarding the increasing number of homicidal deaths of this demographic as such, because the homeless are “perceived as a threat.”

Of course, we should be angry at those who choose to actively brutalize and murder, but what of those who do nothing to stop or help when they’re able? What of the passersby?

Some are saying that the passivity of passersby is the result of a kind of psychological paralysis. “Bystander apathy,” as it’s called, is a result of being overly-exposed to violence and being in a very public setting in which people feel less guilty for doing nothing.

While some, like Manasan, offer other examples for why few get involved in public displays of violence, we should consider whether our judgments of those being harmed play into our decision to pass-by, watch… or help.

Isn’t it possible that in a crisis situation we are more likely to help those we consider more valuable within society than those who we view as a burden?

Jack Levin (no relation to Brian Levin), a professor of sociology and criminology, comments that being homeless and/or elderly has an effect upon those who are witnesses:

“We devalue people with disabilities, people who are homeless, people who are marginal types, and elders,” he said. Levin suggested that crime victims who need help while in a public space try appealing directly to an individual.”If you can somehow single out a person so he does feel personal responsibility, then he will help,” he said.

In discussing what happened in New York the other day, a professor of mine pointed out that even those who speak out for the marginalized often fail to properly help the marginalized.

We feel better about ourselves if we “say” something in support of the needy. I would be lying if I said it doesn’t make me feel better to write this article. But if I regularly justify not helping others when I can, for the sake of myself, and because of implicitly held beliefs about who is valuable and who is not, I am one of those onlookers who passed by the homeless-man while he was bleeding to death.

Consequently, if the murder of this homeless man is an example of our social gradation of human value, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that we are failing to live up to our professed beliefs?

Is it logically consistent to serve others based on merit or need?

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões. (Some Rights Reserved.)

Piped to pastures still

Lent is a time for Christians to give up what is good in order to be reminded of something better. Fasting and prayer are linked in Scripture, and it seems that fasting is a discipline which intensifies our prayers. It does so not because it makes us more holy to abstain from food, or purifies us of earthly desires, but because it creates a unique singularity of attention. Our time is not spent attending to our bodily needs in the way it is generally. This allows more time spent intentionally before the Lord. It fosters our relationship with God, because it gives we who have plenty an experience of neediness.

Our spiritual need, though undoubtedly our most dire, does not confront us with its demands the way the need for hunger or sleep will. Physical desires and needs are insistent and all-consuming when we do not attend to them; spiritual need is often experienced so subtlely as to go unfed for an entire lifetime. The God to whom we pray for our daily bread is also the God who nourishes our souls. Fasting creates a sense of dependency, a visceral experience of our own insufficiency. This fosters a felt understanding of our radical spiritual dependence on God. Fasting, like most disciplines, is a mode of self-teaching, of choosing certain behaviors and activities because they enforce to our somnolent selves the urgency and the reality of our relationship with God.

For most Protestants, “giving up” for Lent is viewed as a way to revamp forgotten New Year’s resolutions, or as an opportunity to give up what they shouldn’t be doing anyway. Fasting isn’t the same as dieting, though the two are often confused. Giving up treats or television is all very well, but Lent isn’t just an opportunity to break a habit. However much our fast may force us to attend to it – we can’t help but feel the tug of desire we are refusing – let us not forget that it is not about what we give up, but what we give it up for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Catholic priest intimately familiar with the self-denial of the Christian life, wrote a poem that movingly expresses this. “The Habit of Perfection” is a series of addresses to his senses, consoling them for their privation for the sake of greater attention to God. The life of the senses is so easily distracting. We are dazzled by data and allured by experience. Divine things are often less present and less compelling. But, as Hopkins reminds us, they are more worthy of our attention. It is often through the purposeful privation of the senses for a time that we are able to better sense our God:

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

Lenten Memory

The Lenten season begins today, though for most this is only noteworthy as a dimly remembered justification for a lot of shenanigans in New Orleans the night before. There is much good in such preparatory seasons, however, even for those of us whose lives are not shaped by the rhythms of a church calendar. Decorating the house for Christmas a month early (or three months early…) extends our enjoyment of the holiday, giving us temporal creatures more time to revel in the thing we love. The Christian calendar surrounds its major holidays with whole seasons — Christmas is traditionally twelve days long, and Easter Season lasts until Pentecost.

While it’s nice to know that advertisers were not the ones who invented long holidays, it is particularly probable that no marketing agency would ever come up with Lent. For Easter (and Passion Week as a whole), the Church has historically taken a different route of preparation than starting up the celebrations early. Lent is preparatory for the remembrance of Christ’s Resurrection because of its contrast to that fact of utmost joy, rather than its continuity with it. Lent is meant to be privative, the fast before the feast, a reminder of why we need God’s intervention in the world in the person of Jesus.

Depriving yourself of something is a good way of waking up to its importance. Skipping a meal makes you aware of your appetite far more than satisfying it would. Lent is a season that capitalizes on this principle. To return to the analogy of Christmas: it’s as if you were given one Christmas present for your entire life. Each year, rather than receiving a new one, you would re-open the old, commemorating when you first received it, and celebrating it again. There would be some counterintuitive wisdom in forgetting what it was you were going to get, or at least remembering what it was like before you received that one gift. Any anniversary is this way: we remind ourselves how glad we are for events which have occurred (births, weddings) and revel in them as if they were new again. Of course, experiences deepen over time. A fiftieth wedding anniversary should have a depth of meaning and experience that a fifth cannot — yet it is in remembering the wedding itself that we set aside time to appreciate the marriage presupposing it.

This doesn’t mean you should spend the month before your anniversary pretending to be single, or even trying to remember what life was like without your spouse. Neither should you hit your thumb with a hammer in order to reconnect with your digits. Lent is not about self-inflicted pain or forgetfulness of our security in Christ. It does recall that our salvation is not a “given,” but a free gift. It is a season of repentance, of giving up, so that we may better rejoice in and receive the fulfilled promise of Jesus’ Resurrection.

This Lenten season, spend time in the Old Testament. Remember how many promises went unfulfilled until the fullness of time. Feel for yourself, along with God’s people through history, the need for a mediator and a savior. Fast from something — remind yourself how little we deserve, and how much we have. Remember the poor. If you can, increase your giving — let your giving up be a giving toward someone who experiences want through all seasons. Lent is a season of remembrance, one brought about not by extended celebration but by protracted absence of it. Remember Proverbs 27:7: “He who is full loathes honey, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.” Don’t starve yourself this Lent, but don’t revel in the usual American over-abundance either. Allow yourself to go without the things you’ve come to expect. Don’t sate yourself so that you have no appetite for the sweetness of our celebrated salvation, when Easter comes. ‘

Was the Haitian disaster preventable?

The obvious response to this potentially offensive question is no. Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake, as straightforward an Act of Nature (or God, depending on who you ask) as one could find. The world is now rushing to relieve the overwhelming devastation this tiny country has suffered. Whether it needed be so large a catastrophe, however, is a real question.

Haiti was, in many ways, a disaster “waiting to happen.” Although a major earthquake will inevitably cause damage and endanger lives, no matter how stringent our building codes, part of the reason Haiti’s death toll is so disturbing is because the extremity of the loss was preventable.

Although the world moves quickly to aid Haiti now, much of the suffering presently plaguing the Haitians could have been avoided if their buildings had been sounder, if their government had been less corrupt, and if their county had been less rife with disease already.

It is not as if Haiti’s need has gone unacknowledged ere now. Much international aid and involvement has been available to them, though one cannot help but conclude that if aid had been more effectual before the earthquake, there would be less need of it now. This reminds us that our aid should be intelligent and infrastructural, not just earnest and palliative.

My intention in this post is not to point fingers or hypothesize what-ifs. Neither is it to indict world governments for not doing more to help stabilize nations wracked with poverty and disease, although there is no doubt a place for such adjuration. My desire is simply to draw attention to the places where the general population’s attention and help goes: it invariably goes to the most publicized and most dramatic need. This is, to some degree, inevitable, but it need not be the case to the degree that it is.

It seems inevitable: when there is disaster on the scale of the one still felt in Haiti, the world pays attention. Most concerned people want to offer immediate alleviation to immediate crisis — and this is as it should be. When people are dying daily of broken bones because there are not enough facilities or practitioners to operate before infection kills, and where people suffer greatly because they are without any sort of pain medication, not to mention potable water, the merciful and the just will seek to answer such obvious needs.

But let us remember, in light of Haiti, that there are world-over “powderkegs of poverty,” places where the lack of a news-commanding crisis allows the world’s attention to wander from need just as great, if less sensational.

Human trafficking and sex slavery persist world-over. Child soldiering continues, particularly in Africa. Poverty and disease are to be found in every place where there is human culture, as are unjust and faulty systems of government.

These problems are endemic. Though they are combatable, they often fall through the cracks of the average person’s attention–especially if we are not confronted with these tragedies personally. Even when we are, the theatrics of the pleas for money and the voyeuristic nature of media attention to a given issue can repel us even further from attending to such huge, persistent problems.

A natural disaster is more easily addressed than the intricacies of labor abuses, for instance, and it is easier to make a onetime donation to the Red Cross than to consistently buy fair-trade products. Systems of injustice and abuse are much harder to solve than an obvious physical need like a lack of medical supplies. They are also more difficult to remember, since they are always with us, enmeshed in the way the world works, not jarring like a hurricane or an earthquake.

But such problems are as pressing to the Christian desiring to “do unto the least of these” and to live in the light of Christ’s life-giving gospel. We who are adjured to do justly and love mercy and walk humbly are counseled to defend the orphan and the widow — I would suggest that this means those orphaned and widowed of the world’s attention as well, the overlooked tragedies. There are those whom disaster has never struck suddenly, but whom it has slowly sapped and crushed instead. These too need our aid and our attention and our prayers.

Give to Haiti. Give to those organizations that are either grass-roots enough (a group of local doctors flying in) or well established enough (find information here on appropriate, informed giving) that you may be confident your money will be used toward relief and reconstruction, and not lost in bureaucracy or misdirection. But as you do give to Haiti, consider researching and giving to help support a less present cause as well.

Consistently contributing to an AIDS orphan’s education or to Red Cross efforts worldover is something harder to remember when not reinforced by a media-blitz of attention to an explosive crisis. There are nations that sag under foreign debt, and people who daily go without food even in the United States. Let us not forget the orphans and the widows of the world whom major disaster and media coverage do not help us remember.

As you give to help an immediate and obvious need, consider giving to help develop infastructure or establish micro-loans in other instances of need. Let us, as we average people turn our attention to staunching Haiti’s decimating wounds through personal giving, not overlook opportunities to strengthen other nations by the same means, in hopes of working to proactively prevent such extreme disaster elsewhere. ‘

You Are What You Eat…And Not Who You Sleep With

Food and sex have shifted roles over the past fifty or so years, argues Mary Eberstadt in a fascinating essay at Policy Review. Once, social stigma condemned extra-marital philandering. Sex was a serious ethical issue, with serious personal and social consequences. Food, however, was something with few, if any, moral implications. Particularly for a generation with memories of the Depression, one was simply glad to have food at all. Continue reading You Are What You Eat…And Not Who You Sleep With

Urban Life and the End of the World

It is a jarring fact for most Christians that our end is in a city, not a garden.  We understand the allure of Eden, our lost home, a beautiful, bountiful haven. A simple life in harmony with nature and God has intuitive appeal. It is harder (for many of us, at least) to anticipate eagerly the fact that we are destined to be urbanites.  We are promised inhabitance in the New Jerusalem, a massive city of the glorified that is ruled by Christ himself. 

In counterbalance to Chesterton’s championing of small community on which I last blogged, Wilfred McClay argues in the most recent edition of The City the particular value of the metropolis. Most Christian thought about stewardship over the earth is likely to evoke environmental concerns before it does urban planning. McClay emphasizes the importance of considering our habitation, however, especially that habitation which is most undeniably a human construct – the city.   

McClay argues that, within American culture, we have careened between over-adulation of the cultural advancement our cities represent, and undervaluing them as irredeemable hotbeds of crime and corruption. As Christians, we ought not fall prey to this false dilemma. We adhere to a faith that views the world as both undeniably God’s and as pervasively at odds with him. In light of this, McClay challenges contemporary Christians: our environments shape us, and we of all people have the greatest reason to be aware of and active in a city’s influence, while seeing it for what it truly is. 

McClay’s call to a more balanced perspective on our cities in light of our Christian story is reminiscent of Lutheran theologian Ted Peters’ espousal of “proleptic ethics” in his book God–the world’s future. Peters argues that the Biblical vision of the end times should inform our lives in the present.  The main gist of Peters’ argument is that we ought to imitate though we cannot imminatize the eschaton. That is, our lives in the present should be informed by the values of the New Jerusalem as they have been revealed to us, though we cannot fully bring them about. If every tear will be wiped away in the New Heaven and the New Earth, we should see this as a charge to address and comfort sorrows now, as Christ’s body and his imitators. Peters’ point is eloquently affirmed by McClay’s sense of how Christians ought to live in an urban setting. Ted Peters describes a life lived by proleptic ethics as “the life of beatitude” – according to McClay, it may be that this life can best occur in the city.

Both Peters and McClay are quick to note that this positive view of earthly justice must always be held in tension with our critical stance toward the inevitable “failures of the present” by the standard of God’s Kingdom Come (377). It is worth recalling that God’s prophets rail against Jerusalem far more often than they foretell its renewal. It is in light of the City which we know we will indwell that we can truly criticize the ones we now indwell. Peters also argues that eschatological ethics are valuable because they give us an aim; they remind us of where this story is headed — and if the story is headed to a city, McClay offers, why not learn to live in one well now? Cities perhaps best exemplify the continuity of culture, and uniquely entrench us in our history, our limitations, and our aims. They serve as both “vehicles of preservation and as vehicles of anticipation,” according to McClay (17). He reminds that the “party of memory is also the party of hope,” for Christians who lean on past promises for future good (18). There is much good in the political and social unity-in-diversity a city alone provides, and that good has special weight for Christians who anticipate heaven as an urban culture. The stench of sin may be most present in cities, but then so are the glimmers of the New Jerusalem. ‘