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Monday, January 30, 2012

The temptations of peace

I've never had a riot near my home. When I hear gunshots in my neighborhood, I assume it must be hunting season. Soldiers have never kicked in my door. I've never been shot at by a sniper.

I live in a relatively peaceful place. Most Christians in the western world can say this.

We know that not all Jesus-followers live this way. Some gather weekly in fear of arrest or violence. Churches explode in flames. Villages are destroyed because of the name of Jesus. In my part of the world we hear these stories and shake our heads. Maybe we pray.

Is there more? What is the proper stewardship of peace?

The fact is, churches in North America are tempted by peace. We are tempted specifically in three directions.

First, peace -- the relative lack of conflict, lack of persecution -- tempts us toward sloppy thinking. We drift away from our biblical foundations. We begin to buy into the views of the world around us. The other "isms" in our world begin to infect our faith. Many churches no longer talk about the Bible being God's Word -- they are embarrassed by the literalism this implies. They are quick to define terms, using pious sounding quotes from great church leaders. One of the most popular quotes in this regard is from Martin Luther, who said that the Bible cradles Jesus like the manger cradled the Christ child. We do not worship the manger, nor do we worship the Bible. So churches that want to distance themselves from the Bible as some kind of literal word of God march out this statement from Luther and use it to duck under the hard sayings, the life-and-death words, the difficult readings of the Bible.

They don't realize the cost. It seems so reasonable to say that the Bible is a human book that contains Jesus, that we read it through the filter of the Great Commandment to love God and love our neighbor, and that everything not fitting these two commandments must be discarded.

In the relative peace that reigned in Germany in the 1920's -- peace consumed with recovery after Germany's defeat in World War One, peace focused on trying to rebuild a nation and rebuild some sense of trust in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles that punished Germany severely -- in this relatively peaceful time, biblical scholars made statements like these. We cannot accept the Bible as God's literal word, they said. We study the Bible to know what happened to the Israelites in ancient times, to know the infancy of that great institution, the Church. We don't treat the Bible as though it was some magical, supernatural book that is actually God's vehicle for speaking to us. That's ludicrous and childish.

It was this way of thinking that paved the way for the next steps -- for pastors and theologians to say that Christianity must rise above its Jewish roots, that all things Jewish must be discarded as inferior, including the Old Testament. These thoughts were not considered dangerous in those days, but rather progressive and exciting and freeing. A new vision of Jesus, freed from the wooden literalism of the Bible, began to emerge. This Jesus was a bright spot of Aryan light breaking into the darkness of Judaism. This Jesus -- fabricated out of thin air by biblical scholars and theologians who no longer considered the Bible as God's word, who laughed at what they began to call "fundamentalists" -- this Jesus paved the way for the extermination of six million Jews in places like Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

Peace tempts us to be sloppy in our biblical thinking. Peace tempts us not to trust in, not to rely on the Bible as God's Word. Peace tempts us to trust ourselves rather than to trust God's Word. In times of peace we read a verse like Proverbs 3:5-6 ("Trust in the Lord with your whole heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight") and we think, Yes, that's beautiful. And I'll do what makes sense to me.

In times of peace Jesus' followers must cling for our very lives to his Word. We must see in the Bible God's very words to us. We study to know what these words meant to their original hearers. We do the hard work of scholarship in Hebrew and Greek. We read beyond simple surface understandings. But at the same time we cling to these words as life itself, because Jesus clung to them in this way, and he told us to do so as well. God help us if we ever begin to think that this or that part of the Scriptures don't apply to us.

Second, peace tempts us toward laziness. We are tempted to become lazy in our mission, lazy in our disciple-making, lazy in our own personal spiritual formation. "There is time," we think, as Pink Floyd sang so articulately:

"Tired and lying in the sunshine,
Staying home to watch the rain.
You are young, and life is long,
And there is time to kill today;
And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You've missed the starting gun."

So we get lazy in our mission. We lose any sense of urgency and other priorities begin to take over. Mission is important, yes, but we have to have balance in our lives. The needs seem far away. We don't want to rush into things. How can we know the best way to allocate our time and our energy, anyway? There are so many choices. It's best to take the long view.

Thoughts like these keep us from ever getting off the dime and doing something that can make an eternal difference. Instead of taking a chance and getting involved with a mission agency that might not be perfect, we become more and more self-focused, more and more concerned about our own needs. Churches that once sent their dollars and their children to the mission field spend their annual meetings, their budgets, and their sweat trying to maintain the church building and pay the pastor.

While it is certainly true that the face of missions has changed in the last century, and there are many needs close to home, we have lost something critical here that we don't often recognize. One of the greatest facets of our mission-focus a century ago was that our young people often saw and heard an appeal to give their lives to the mission of Christ. When a missionary came from deepest darkest Africa to share harrowing tales of bringing the gospel to the heathen, the sermon or slideshow often ended with an appeal for some of the young people in the crowd to consider giving their lives to foreign missions. Who will tell them if you don't? This was not a cliche but an honest appeal for the most urgent of tasks.

Today we may think about a week-long mission trip to build houses across the border in Mexico (preferably over Christmas break, when it's cold here and warm there). But very rarely do we hear an appeal for radically giving your whole life to missions of any kind, either here or abroad. Our young people, at an age when they are seeking an adrenaline-filled challenge, don't hear the call to give their lives to Jesus Christ and his kingdom. Our peaceful context makes these radical appeals seem like an overreaction.

Many who might give their all to Jesus end up going into teaching, or social work, or business. All these are honorable callings, no doubt, but the heart that is looking for a challenge somehow never considers following Jesus in a radical way. The call to be a pastor in Germany in the 1920's was an honorable calling, but not a radical one. Shortly after Hitler came to power the German church convinced or coerced the vast majority of its pastors to swear an oath of loyalty to der Fuhrer as the head of the Church. How could these pastors, who took the job because it was a respectable calling where they could help people, now be expected to discern the need for a radical stand against the leader of their country? They could not. Only a very few troublemakers had the foresight to stand against Hitler and accept the consequences of their actions.

Third, peace tempts us to get swept up in the culture. When there is no urgency in our lifestyle choices, when there is no solid Word from God to shape and direct our lives, we naturally begin to drift with the current, like salmon that have spawned and now drift lazily downstream to die. We go with the flow, not realizing that there are other possibilities. We don't recognize that Jesus is headed somewhere else. So we begin to believe the billboards along the interstate and the banner ads on our favorite websites. Advertisers preach to us a message of self-fulfillment we begin to accept as truth. We begin to believe the movies and games that occupy our leisure hours. All of these media carry a message, and many of these messages stand in direct opposition to the call of Christ. But in peacetime each bit of entertainment seems like a harmless diversion. We forget the Bible's call not to be conformed to this world (Romans 12:1-2).

Is this really a big deal?

Peacetime in the church presents us with many temptations, but it also offers a great opportunity. If we can keep our foundations, peacetime gives us the chance to develop hard-edged leaders with clear spiritual sight and effective training in God's Word and in the practical matters of following Jesus. Perhaps these leaders will be called to go into those places where Christians are persecuted. Perhaps they will be called to offer training to local leaders who've never enjoyed the luxury of a Bible class. Or perhaps in this radical life of discipleship they will discover a mission field full of lost and drifting souls all around them. Perhaps they will discover that their own peaceful culture is headed for the edge of the cliff and needs saving.

The tragedy is that the church may well sleep its way through this lazy, peaceful time.

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