I was reading an article online the other day that talked about common Christian misconceptions still taught by the church today. One of them was of particular interest to me, since I myself believed it until I was probably a sophomore in college. Reading it reminded me of how common it is to find "pseudo Christian" ideas still floating around in Christian circles. I was also reminded of the importance of having an educated Pastor to help shepherd the church and correct doctrinal errors when they arise.
Although I had grown up in the church, I later discovered that I still had many ideas about my faith, which weren't Biblical at all. They certainly weren't Christian. They were simply watered down combinations of various religious doctrines that resembled Christianity. So what was the misconception? Well, the article that I read cited a study which claimed that something like 82% of Christians in the church today believe that when we die we will be resurrected and will spend eternity with God in heaven. Does that sound familiar to you? Maybe you're wondering why I have a problem with that. If so, hear me out, because this is a fundamental Christian idea which unfortunately has been influenced more by popular culture than scripture. So follow me down the rabbit trail.
"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth..." The first words of scripture make it very clear that all things find their origin in God. Although this might seem obvious, or something that you've heard countless times before, take a second to really contemplate this idea. For I find it astounding. For some reason, the eternal, triune God, who is not physical, who does not age, who is all powerful, decided to create. The physical expanse of the universe burst into being. Galaxy after galaxy came into existence in an instant: billions of stars, hundreds of billions of planets! What a show! And yet somehow, because we have heard this passage before, we simply read over it. "Yeah yeah, I get it, He made everything." But the reality is, nothing was more significant than this moment. For in this act, the existence of everything, was established. God created matter, and that MATTERS. God was no longer some isolated eternal power, but a father, and a mother, to all of creation. His duties extended beyond himself, and suddenly he was invested.
What we quickly discover, is that his creation is not random. In fact, it's very ordered. He creates carefully. Regardless of whether or not the creation story is literal, there is no doubt that the author intended his reader to understand that creation was organized. God created, and he loved. In its very first pages, scripture has God declaring that his creation is good. There was something incredibly significant about the project God had embarked on, and things had changed forever. He had created, and declared it good. And nothing was going to change that... even sin.
For even after Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge, God does not abandon them. He casts them out of the garden yes, but he does not destroy them. In an act of love, he leads them into the wilderness, yet still provides for them. Although they are tainted, they are not beyond redemption. God retains a shred of hope that his beloved image bearers might turn back to him. Despite his grace, sin increases though, and in a moment of anger, he desires to destroy them. Yet even in his anger, he preserves a remnant. Noah and his family escape the flood and are spared. God continues to hope.
He then chooses a small group of people to be his representatives. He hoped that they would be a light to the world, and through his favor for them, the whole world would turn back to him. Yet they failed. They turned to idols and allowed themselves to be influenced by other nations. They abandoned God, and were left to their own devices. Although God had given the Israelites the promised land, the equivalent of heaven on earth, the Israelites strayed. God did not promise them a ticket to heaven, but rather a restored earth. A new Garden, in which his people could thrive and prosper.
It's no surprise then, that the messiah would come in the flesh. Tens of thousands of years after creation, God comes and inhabits a body. He becomes flesh, so that he can be among us, and offer us a solution to the problem of sin. You see, the wages of sin are death, and when we have sinned, our relationship with the divine is severed. Therefore, we need an intermediary. A person to rebuild the bridge. So God comes.
God doesn't desert us. He doesn't throw in the towel. He doubles down. He comes in flesh. And after he's crucified, he comes back in flesh. He reassures us that the first act of creation, so many thousands or millions of years ago, was not an accident. You and I are not an accident. We were intentionally created with love and care, and God is not about to abandon us. So he's resurrected. He's brought back to life, in true flesh and blood. When I say true, I don't mean like you and I. I mean TRUE flesh and blood. A pre-sin body, which is glorified, and eternal. The same body you and I are promised if we place our faith in him. The same flesh and blood that Adam and Eve had before the fall. And once again, God reaffirms the importance of creation. We were not an accident, or the consequence of some divine wager gone wrong. We are God's crowning glory. The full expression of his love. And because of this, I find it fascinating that most Christians cannot wait to leave!
Most Christians believe that when they die, they will receive a heavenly body, and ascend to the house of the Lord. But in fact, scripture teaches that our fate was never meant to be heaven. Since the beginning of creation, we have been earth bound creatures. God did not create the heavens and the earth, only to give up on it after a few million years. The earth is here to stay!
John gives credibility to this concept when he writes this in Revelations 21, "Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
What an image! John talks about how, after we die, we will be resurrected with Christ in our new bodies, and we will proceed to spend eternity with God, right here on the restored earth. Our purpose was never meant to be to relax in heaven, but rather to be a part of God's plan right here on earth. The kingdom of God, which Christ first established in Spirit, will finish in the flesh. We will be physical, and full of life. We will be eternal, and capable of being directly with God, like Adam and Eve in the garden. We will no longer be hindered by sin, but will be free to live unbound with God. Our image, fashioned after God's own image, will be perfected, and just like Christ, we will be restored.
Christian doctrine does not teach us that heaven is our final destination. Will we visit heaven at some point? Perhaps. But our ultimate goal is earth. For creation, from day one, was declared good! We were created in love, and God will see us through. The universe is vast and beautiful. The earth is abundant, and meant to provide. We are God's creation, and our bodies are good. May we never forget that God has created us to be with him in the flesh. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says this in chapter 15:42-43, " It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength."
So let us not place our faith in misguided doctrine, or spiritual half truths. We will spend eternity with God, and it will be perfect, but we will not be with him in heaven. Our place is on the earth. For God declared his creation good, and it will be so. We will be restored to life if our faith is in Christ. We will be resurrected and renewed. We will eat from the tree of life, and our bellies will be full. For God is good, and he loves us. His grace is everlasting, and he will not abandon us. So take heart, for although we suffer today, tomorrow we feast!
Monday, April 8, 2013
Friday, February 15, 2013
I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day. He and I have grown up together, attending the same church and sharing friends. We went to summer camps, and shared birthdays, all in the context of a church environment, led by healthy leaders, and a successful youth program. In light of this, we were both surprised to realize, when talking about our pasts, that we were only two, out of twelve of our friends, who were still involved in the church. This discouraging fact led us to ask the question, what went wrong? How did so many of us go astray? Besides its personal nature, this fact is particularly intriguing because of its wider application. You see, my friends are simply a microcosm of the rest of our culture, reflecting an entire generation of Christians who seem to have practically disappeared from the church completely (at least between the ages of 22-30). Because of this, my friend and I began to discuss how we feel the church has failed our generation in communicating the gospel and the necessity of being involved in a faith community.
The primary problem that we identified could be accurately summed up in a philosophy shared by another friend: "how you win people, is how you will have to keep them". The modern evangelical church in general, has commonly adopted a methodology that encourages ministries to emulate the culture around them, in order to seem relevant to younger generations. For example, to draw young people in, churches have begun to change their names from San Diego Presbyterian Church, to arbitrary names like “The Epicenter.” Pastors have stopped wearing suits and ties, and begun to wear jeans and sandals. Classic hymns have become passé, and modern worship songs have grown tired after only a year or two. An entire generation of kids grew up thinking that church was cool; a place to meet girls and arrange coffee dates. The problem with this perspective though, is that the church is fundamentally uncool. The church was never meant to be a culturally accepted institution. Jesus himself promises his disciples that the world will hate them (Matthew 10:22). The church was originally a band of uneducated misfits, who challenged the ruling authorities and powers of an unjust world. The church is not a place to be entertained or to find a date. The church is a place for the community of God to be edified, supported and transformed. The church is a place where Christians can meet, sharpen each other, and serve the community around them.
The problem with church, at least in my own experience, is that it has tried to represent itself as something that it will never be... cool. In my youth, the church had just become another social environment, void of any higher significance or meaning. After leaving high school, my friends realized this, and felt fooled and frustrated. They had been served a light helping of Jesus wrapped up in rhetoric and manipulation; an image conscious, social hierarchy which left them feeling like Jesus was just another historical religious figure who belonged on trendy t-shirts available at Urban Outfitters (see “Jesus is my Homeboy shirts, circa 2003) The church must tap into something far deeper than basic social desires. It has to be about more than wanting to belong to something that seems cooler than them. It must present Jesus as the savior of the world, worthy of our attention and devotion, regardless of the social consequences. The church must be more than another place to meet guys. The church has to be convinced that it is the only solution for a dying and decaying world around it, and the people that attend have to think that way too.
In order to appeal to the profane world around us, we often feel pressured to water down the sacred message we preach. If we want to keep our churches pure, and our teachings powerful, we must not be afraid to be different. When Moses came across the burning bush in the middle of the desert, God did not command him to buy a trendier brand of sandals! He told him to take them off! He commanded him to recognize that the ground that he was standing on was holy, and that it deserved his respect. I believe that the reason why so many people in my generation have left the church is because we have presented them with an experience that’s exactly like the world around them. Our worship services look like concerts, and our sanctuaries like movie theaters. In order to be relevant, we have given up the only thing that really set us apart, our holiness. Instead of designing our worship services to appeal to the world, we should be designing our worship services to appeal to God. Instead of lowering our standards because they seem controversial, we should be submitting ourselves to the rule of scripture, our standard for living. By being true to ourselves we will attract those in whom the spirit is truly moving, instead of letting ourselves be swayed by people who are only there for superficial reasons. We have to operate under the fundamental perspective that what we are selling, doesn’t need to be sold at all. That the message of Christ is good enough on it’s own. Our only worth is in the fact that we’re different. As soon as that is compromised, we have nothing left.
To be honest, I admit that it’s almost certain that we’ll attract more people with flashy stage setups, professional bands, and polished services. But the question that we must ask ourselves is how far are we willing to go in order to attract people? How much must we reflect the trends of the world before we lose our own identity? How is this contributing to our goal of becoming more like Christ? Are we creating an environment that is conducive to the worship of the almighty living God, or are we creating an environment that is built on image and entertainment? If it is the latter, than I believe that we are doomed to live out two realities. The first is that we will attract people who come to be entertained. They will have no true respect for the worship of God or a desire to be more like him. Our churches will be filled with consumers and takers, who will leave as soon as our originality and novelty has dried up. The second is that we will be forced to constantly redesign ourselves in order to appear “fresh.” We will struggle to maintain our congregations, like a pile of sand which slips through our fingers. Although our hand looks full, it’s only because we keep piling more sand on the top. Besides the obvious theological problems with this model, I believe we will find it unsustainable. For eventually there will be no sand to pile on the top. When we relegate our Christian communities to the constantly shifting sands of our society, we become slaves to trendiness. We become vague reflections of the world around us, instead of clear reflections of Christ. I believe that the only truly unique thing that we have to offer is Christ himself, and he doesn’t need us to make him appealing. If His mercy does not appeal to someone, then I doubt a professional band is going to fix that. Which brings be back to my original point; how we win people is how we will have to keep them. So how are you winning your people? And how long will it last? Because if Jesus needs us to make him attractive, then we’re in big trouble!
Posted by Thomas Lengyel at 10:55 PM
Friday, February 8, 2013
During my quiet time this morning, I read a passage from Genesis 27. In this passage Isaac, one of the early people of God, calls his eldest son Esau to his side while on his death bed to deliver his birthright (land, cattle, God's blessing etc.). He commands his son Esau, who was a skilled hunter, to go catch some wild game, prepare a meal, and return for his birthright. This is where the story gets interesting though. Rebekah, their mother, overhears Isaac's request and quickly runs to retrieve their younger son Jacob, who was "content to stay at home among the tents" and help in the kitchen. It was no surprise that he was her favorite. She told him to get two lambs, which she would secretly prepare for Isaac. She also commanded Jacob to wear his brother's clothes, and attach goatskin to his hands and neck to appear hairy (Isaac's eyesight had apparently gone very bad.) After they have prepared the tools of their deception, Jacob enters Isaac's tent, and proceeds to trick him into thinking that he is Esau. After smelling his clothes, touching his hands and neck, and eating the stew, the father relents and delivers his blessing to his younger son Jacob. It went like this
“Ah, the smell of my son
is like the smell of a field
that the Lord has blessed.
28 May God give you heaven’s dew
and earth’s richness—
an abundance of grain and new wine.
29 May nations serve you
and peoples bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed
and those who bless you be blessed.”
Esau, all the while, is out in the field hunting for food. When he returns, he finds that his blessing has been given, and that Isaac, will not (or cannot) take it back. Esau cries out in sorrow, and laments in his heart. For his blessing has been robbed of him.
Growing up, I rarely had much sympathy for Esau. He is presented in scripture as a bit of a lunkhead. He tends to make decisions with his stomach instead of his head. Only two chapters before, we find another story of Jacob and Esau, where Esau returns from the fields famished, and Jacob offers him a bowl of soup for his birthright. Esau, starving from a hard hunt, agrees and takes his soup. Most people agree that Esau is not actually giving away his birthright here, even if he meant it; but rather this story highlights his impatience, and thoughtlessness. It also highlights his younger brother's cunning and willingness to manipulate his brother. Esau is portrayed as a sort of modern day star athlete who always gets by on his physical abilities and looks, while Jacob is intelligent and probably weak. In light of this, I would often read this passage with an aversion towards Esau, as if he got what he deserved. Had he been more clever, he would not have been outsmarted.
In reading it again this morning though, I was struck by my own sympathy for Esau. Sure he was probably a little thick headed and impertinent towards his brother, pushing him around when he was younger. But this was HIS birthright. He was the eldest son, and despite his flaws, this was his right. He had been waiting his whole life for this inheritance, and had most likely planned his entire future based on its provision. He had been groomed to be the leader of the family, and had proven himself to be a strong provider. Jacob on the other hand struck me as a spoiled brat. The kind of child who is more intelligent than his older brother, and never lets him forget it. The kind of child who despises physical prowess and ability, only because he is too weak to compete. His desire to take his brother's birthright demonstrated a callous and compassionless spirit, who would do anything to gain wealth and respect. While Esau is in the field, hunting for his father, Jacob is in the tent, swindling him.
I wonder if sometimes we can be too smart for our own good? I wonder if sometimes, we can take pride in our ability to manipulate and deceive? In a world which glorifies the person who will do anything to get to the top, most people would commend Jacob. His ability to trick his father secured his future. But in the life of a Christian, we are called to be transparent and honest. We are called to speak carefully without flattery, putting other people first. Jacob's actions in light of Jesus' teachings that the first shall be last, seem evil and wrong. Paul talks about people who deceive in Romans 16:18 when he says "18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people." As I reflect on this story, I feel empathy for Esau. He was a simple minded man, taken advantage by his brother. Although he was probably coarse with Jacob (a typical older brother no doubt) his future was stolen from him in one swift move. I also consider my own life, and wonder if I have ever taken advantage of someone with my words, in order to get what I want. Do I ever use words to flatter and deceive? If so, I pray that God would correct me. For better is the man who speaks simply, and is punished, then the man who deceives and prospers. May my words be simple and my motives true. May I get only what I deserve and leave the rest to someone else!
Posted by Thomas Lengyel at 12:19 PM
Thursday, February 7, 2013
As a person who has devoted much of their time to studying scripture, it can sometimes feel like you've read the same passage a hundred times. It is in these times that you must remind yourself that scripture is more than just a collection of random books and letters. Scripture is living and active, sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). If we find ourselves reading scripture, and not being moved by it, than it's the attitude of our hearts which must be examined. God's word is never changing, but our hearts are constantly on the move. In order to grow and mature as Christians, we have to draw our hearts back into communion with the Father on a daily basis. Christ must be our center, drawing us into his divine love. Without his power shaping and defining our paths, we are doomed to wander aimlessly, like the Israelites in the desert. Israel wandered for forty years before they entered the promised land. Jesus only needed forty days to accomplish the same journey. Where they failed, he succeeded, for his intentions were pure, and his mind was centered on his Father. Jesus must be our example. Even in his divinity, he regularly made time to be with his Father. After spending a long night in the house of Simon and Andrew, healing people, Mark 1:35 says that very early in morning, Jesus got up, went to a solitary place, and prayed. A wonderful image of our savior no doubt. Probably exhausted and drained, Jesus arose to pray, understanding that he could do nothing without the help of his Father (John 5:30).
So my question, posed first to myself and then to you is this, if even Jesus needed to invest in his relationship with his Father, how much more must we? Are we not more prone to sin? Are we not more likely to turn away from God in moments of selfishness and self centeredness? If even the incarnation himself is dependent upon the Father, how much more must we pull ourselves back into the divine life? With this in mind, I have adopted a new habit. Through an accountability group that I am now a part of, I picked up a copy Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals With this tool, and my Bible, I have decided to awake every day at six, and to pray until 7:15. I began this week, and have found it to be wonderful. Despite the fact that I am a dedicated night owl, I am going to try my best to change my habits. In my small one bedroom apartment, I have two clear skylights overhead. My vaulted living room ceilings rise above me like a modern, suburban cathedral. In the morning, before the sun rises, the room is dark and cold. As the sun ascends, the room comes to life with a warm orange glow. I light a candle, read scripture, follow my prayer book, and recenter my soul. I believe completely that unless we go, and find a solitary place to pray, on a daily basis, our wells will dry up. Our hearts will grow cold, and our God distant. So wake up oh my soul, arise and be attentive, for your God is available and ready to commune!
Posted by Thomas Lengyel at 4:38 PM