Tuesday, August 30, 2005

From Rude Nature

When I was sixteen years old I took my father out for dinner on his birthday to a place called Ichabod’s, on Lake Ponchartrain in New Orleans. Or perhaps, after hurricane Katrina, I should say “on Lake Ponchartrain which now IS New Orleans.” At any rate, all I remember from that evening (other than his surprise when I actually picked up the tab) was that we ended up talking about the jobs he had had in his lifetime: boyhood jobs, part-time jobs, college jobs, summer jobs, first-jobs-out-of-college jobs, career jobs. Two things became clear during this conversation: First, he truly enjoyed working. And second, he was trying to tell me about himself by telling me about his jobs.

Labor Day was conceived in the late 19th century as a testament to the cause of America’s Labor unions. Labor leader Peter J. McGuire suggested a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City (I’m guessing there were no sales at the mall). In 1884 it was changed to the first Monday of September and labor unions in other cities were urged to follow New York’s example and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. [At the time, the Socialist Party held a similar celebration of the working class on May 1, which eventually became known as May Day and was celebrated by Socialists and Communists in commemoration of the working man. The first Monday in September was selected to reject any identification with Communism.] In 1894 Congress passed a law recognizing Labor Day as an official national holiday.

It is interesting how a national holiday can, over time, lose its moorings in the original purpose and drift into a new kind of significance. Partly because of the decline of labor unions as a national and political force, and partly because of other social factors such as consumerism and the availability of leisure time, Labor Day now functions mostly as “the last vacation day of summer” and the end of the “summer season.” Since autumn begins in September (temperatures drop into the low 90’s in Houston as the first cool front moves in), the Labor Day weekend serves a symbolic purpose as the “turning of the corner” into fall.

Listen, I enjoy barbecuing and having a day off as much as anyone, same as I do on Memorial Day, the “first vacation day of summer.” But each year I find myself trying to engage a little more with the original purpose of these days. Even a tiny gesture like flying the flag on Memorial Day and watching the President’ speech at Arlington National Cemetery adds much personal significance to the holiday. I don’t quite know what would be the equivalent on Labor Day (how ironic is it that the signature event of this weekend, the Labor Day Sale, requires workers to put in overtime!). But that’s why I’m preaching on “The Worth of Work” this Sunday. And that’s why I’ll try to summons an extra measure of gratitude this Monday as I take my day off and give thanks for the blessing of a job. And the blessing of a day off. – Matt Soper

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Afterlife (Part IV)

Perhaps the most unpleasant doctrine of the Christian faith, but one that is essential, is the doctrine of hell, which does not include, but should, a description of Houston in August. As the great British thinker and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton noted, “When hell is lost, heaven is not far behind.” What he meant by this is that when we jettison the doctrine of hell from the Christian worldview, we inevitably skew towards a utilitarianism which also neglects to acknowledge heaven and, consequently, becomes a “this-life” project of self-actualization and/or humanitarianism.

So as unpleasant as it may be (and hell should never be an outcome we take satisfaction in), we must acknowledge and live out the Christian teaching that those who reject God’s grace and forgiveness cut themselves off from eternal life (Romans 2:8-12) and face God’s consuming fire of judgment (Hebrews 10:26-27). This has been called “the dark side of divine justice.”

Many feel that this Christian doctrine portrays, or even reveals, God to be “unfair.” They ask, what about the Aborigine in Australia who has never heard about Jesus? Or the Buddhist in China who lives a compassionate and exemplary moral life and knows about Jesus only in a peripheral way? My considered response, and firm conviction, is that God judges people by what they hear and understand. The apostle Paul declares, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? (Romans 10:13-14). One might ask, “Yes, but isn’t hell a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ issue; your view would suggest there are ‘degrees’ of acceptance?” I readily acknowledge this difficulty, but it is the best way I have been able to appropriate my understanding of God’s justice through the scriptural witness.

There are in fact many questions which I will confidently leave to God to answer because they are difficult and troubling, such as “Do you mean to say that a Christian who has lived an abusive and destructive life is more pleasing to God than, for instance, a sincere agnostic who has lived virtuously?” To say “yes” would seem to make God a legalist. But we also must consider the New Testament witness about being saved by God’s grace through our faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).

So here is how I emerge from this thicket of issues to live with a workable doctrine of hell: I localize it. I can’t answer the global questions about indigenous Paraguayans living in the Rain Forest. But I can live out the light of Jesus Christ in my life through words and deeds, lovingly calling people to faith in Him and living in such a way that this invitation is a winsome one, while confidently, and sadly, declaring that those who reject (and I will let God determine what “reject” means) this divine initiative have no hope beyond this life.

I will talk about various views of hell in a future article. In the meantime, while discussions about the Rain Forest are titillating, the more pertinent question for you and me is how we are living out our “ambassadorship” in Christ (II Corinthians 5:18-20) in our little corner of the world. In August in Houston

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Afterlife (Part III)

I have been writing about the Christian understanding of the afterlife, with its four primary dimensions: Christ’s second coming, the resurrection of the dead, judgment, and the end of the present world order. Today I want to talk about heaven, mindful of the great British preacher Charles Spurgeon’s words: “When you talk about heaven, let your face radiate great joy and happiness; when you talk about hell, well, then your everyday face will do.”

So I am smiling as I write this but I must confess to you that in my twenty-two years as a Christian I have had a remarkable lack of curiosity about heaven. Part of the reason for this, no doubt, is my relative youth and good health. But another reason is that I have always felt strongly that the joys and benefits of walking with Christ are so profound now, in this life, that heaven has not held a fascination for me. I believe God wants this life to be far more than a weary holding action until we can experience the joy of heaven. Jesus speaks in this regard of “abundant life” (John 10:10).

And please note that an awareness and anticipation of heaven (one dimension of Christian “hope”) is not an escape from the reality of this life but an enhancement of it. As the great British apologist (what is it with me and the British?!) C.S. Lewis noted, “A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”

At any rate, I talked last time about the Christian understanding of salvation, which is that we are saved by God’s grace working through our faith in the sufficiency of what Christ has done for us on the Cross. Note that a key tenet of this understanding is that salvation begins in this life through our repentance (turning from our old life), baptism (uniting with Jesus in his death and resurrection), and subsequent life of discipleship with him. In Ephesians 1:13-14 Paul describes the Holy Spirit as the “pledge of our inheritance” of the full presence of God we will experience in heaven. Indeed, the aspect of heaven that captures my imagination is that it is a continuation of the salvation we experience in this life but with more power and vividness.

In his classic book The Great Divorce, Lewis attempts to capture this power and vividness:
The cool smooth skin of the bright water was delicious to my feet and I walked on it for about an hour, making perhaps a couple of hundred yards. … Hours later I rounded a bend… Before me green slopes made a wide amphitheatre, enclosing a frothy and pulsating lake into which, over many-colored rocks, a water-fall was pouring. Here once again I realized that something had happened to my senses so that they were now receiving impressions which would normally exceed their capacity. … I exulted. The noise, though gigantic, was like giant’s laughter: like the revelry of a whole college of giants together laughing, dancing, singing, roaring at their high works.

He later speaks of “the waterfall that poured with loud joy.” What a wonderful image.

I’ll talk more about heaven (and of course hell) in future weeks. Keep that joy on your face.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Hard Life

I came across an arresting comment recently as I perused a ministry magazine while Angela watched a television drama and I pretended to be too intellectual for that while actually watching the drama out of the corner of my eye. She is very patient with this little pretense of mine and I am beginning to suspect that she reads my magazines out of the corner of her eye. Yes, things can get pretty zany at the Soper house.

At any rate, in this article a preacher commented that his members had such “hard lives” that they needed the church to be a welcoming place with a friendly atmosphere. The reason I noted this comment (during a commercial break) is because his congregation is in a very nice, middle-class suburb outside of a large city. Certainly when you think historically and globally of what constitutes “hard life” these peoples’ circumstances do not come to mind.

And yet I understand exactly what he is saying.

He is referring to the increasing difficulty of balancing work, marriage, parenting, and leisure in a society which seems to demand more and more of our energy to hold it all together. To be sure, many of us should simplify and slow down, but the fact remains that if you are a single person in a relationship, married, or a parent raising children, well, you’re not usually cruising down the road of life with nary a care in the world. There is immense stress on marriages and families because of a myriad of factors, not all of which we can control.

As we prepared to relocate to our new campus and begin a new chapter in the West Houston story, the elders and I talked about how we could more effectively come alongside people facing the various challenges inherent in relationships, marriage, and parenting. Indeed, not just come alongside them in a crisis but equip them with helpful tools for thriving. Relationships, marriage, and parenting are beautiful and rewarding life experiences; they are also hard work and many people find themselves broken down on the side of the road, or limping along at 15 m.p.h. on the shoulder with a malfunctioning AC and no radio (forgive the analogy; it was the one that came most immediately to mind in August in Houston).

Starting this fall we are committed to offering mid-week classes and occasional seminars and special presentations to help encourage and equip people for the various challenges of relationships, marriage and parenting. For instance, on November 5 Ron Deal, a nationally known expert on step-families, will give a seminar at WHCC on the challenges of blended family life. On Wednesday evenings starting September 14, we will offer a class on parenting called “Raiders of the Lost Art… of Parenting” and a class on marriage called “Marriage Matters.” Our intention is to offer practical and biblical resources and events to provide WHCC members and, just as importantly, people in our community with tools and teaching to have strong and rewarding family lives.

Reason #149 why I look forward with great anticipation to West Houston’s future on our new campus. – Matt Soper

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Afterlife (Part II)

Last week I noted that there are four key elements in the Christian understanding of the afterlife. To recap: Christ will come again at a time of God’s choosing which cannot be known by us. The dead will be raised and judgment will take place. This second coming (or “parousia”) will bring about a transition from the present world order to “a new heaven and a new earth.”

I told you I would talk about judgment this week and I know you have been hardly able to stand the suspense. Let me begin by saying that most people accept the idea that there will be some kind of reckoning for the way we conduct our lives. They think people like Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Paris Hilton should have to pay a price for what they have done in this life. But most people assume that their own good deeds far outweigh the bad and therefore they will “make the cut.” It’s like those surveys which indicate that something like 89% of people consider themselves above-average drivers. Riiiiight.

One of the foundational claims of the Christian faith, and indeed one of the things that serves as a stumbling block for some, is that we all, left to ourselves, “miss the cut.” Paul says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” To be sure, some people are much better human beings than others are. But even the best fall short of the righteousness and holiness of God. What we need, then, is pardon, which is won (or “paid,” or “secured”) for us when Jesus, himself sinless, offers himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins on the cross. Indeed, this was God’s plan, so that, for instance, Paul talks about “the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement” (Romans 3:24). This pardon which Christ, out of love for us (I John 4:9-10) secured is made “effective through faith.” (Romans 3:25). That is, it is offered to everyone (this is the “Good News”) but people must choose whether or not they want to place their faith and trust in it or, more precisely, in Him.

Two things Christians hold in tension about judgment is that, on the one hand, people are accountable for how they live, and on the other hand, they are saved by God’s grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), not by our works. How to reconcile the two? I like the way Edward Fudge puts it when he distinguishes between the “believer” and the “make-believer.”

“Our security is not in a doctrine, but in a Savior. The question is ours each new day: "Do you acknowledge that you are a sinner, considered apart from Christ? Do you acknowledge him as your Savior and trust his atonement for peace and right standing with God? Are you sorry for sin and determined to turn from it? Do you cling to the cross of Jesus as your only hope of forgiveness? Do you give yourself to God in return, in gratitude for his unfathomable kindness and grace?" All who sincerely answer "Yes" to these questions may know that they belong to Christ and that God will keep them to the end.” (GracEmail, 8/2/05; edwardfudge.com).

I’ll discuss Heaven and Hell in future weeks. If you just can’t wait to talk about Hell, spend some time outside in August in Houston. This will fire up your imagination.