Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Materialist Bet

I have been re-reading Armond Nicholi’s outstanding book, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life. Next to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, this is the best work of Christian apologetics I have read (to date). When Lewis was an atheistic but searching student at Oxford, he felt himself torn between the “material” and “spiritual” worldviews. The “materialists” believe that physical matter is all that exists – there is no spiritual or supernatural reality. When we talk about “materialism” these days we usually refer to an excessive interest in clothes, cars, flat-screen TV’s and the like, but underneath this lies the deeper material worldview.

I have found it helpful to reflect on this as I spend time in Matthew 6:24-34, from which I am preaching this week. Jesus teaches his followers not to be anxious about what we are to eat, drink or wear. He tells us that our heavenly Father knows that we need these things (6:32) so we should trust in His provision while giving our best attention to God and His work and His ways. In short, “seek first His kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (6:33).

Back to the material worldview. It makes sense that if the world of matter is all there is, then we ought to “make the most of the time” and try to experience the best of it and as much of it as we can in our short life – clothes, cars, boats, TV’s, jewelry, beaches, mountains, casinos, golf, food, drink. But if we believe that there is a deeper spiritual reality in this life, and furthermore that this life is both preparation for and prelude to the full experience of this spiritual reality, then we ought to be careful not to put all our chips on the materialist bet.

I am often wary of zero-sum arguments, but it seems to me that Jesus teaches us here and elsewhere that we can’t have it all – if we try to load up on all the material things and experiences and squeeze them for all the pleasure we can get from them, we will miss out on the spiritual riches available to us. There simply will not be room in our heart and soul for them. This is why Jesus says “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (6:24). Mammon does not refer to money, per se, but to possessions and stuff, the things which money purchases and which demands our attention.

Jesus says something striking: “The pagans run after all these things” (6:32). Well of course they do! They are materialists! If I were a pagan I would run after them too because that is all I could count on for fulfillment and happiness in this life! Jesus’ point is that those who believe in Him, His resurrection, the Kingdom, the Spirit, the spiritual reality of God at work in the world and in the lives of His people, ought to know better than to run down this road, which is a dead-end as the Bible reminds us so often (see Ecc. 3:10-11, Luke 12:13-21; I Tim. 6:6-10, et al.).

Listen, God’s creation is good and there is much to enjoy. The opposite of materialism is an unhealthy asceticism which eschews all pleasures-of-this-world in order to focus only on the “spiritual.” But for most of us that is not where our challenge lies.

I believe Jesus calls us to a simplicity that makes room for God’s will and his work in our lives. It is not simplicity as an end in itself, but to let God in. He will not force himself in. He wants to know that we believe He is there and He loves us, unlike the extra TV or outfit.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Fairness Doctrine?

The summer after I graduated from high school in New Orleans in 1980, I worked for a temp company called Manpower. One of my assignments was to work with Colonial Molasses at the plant where they shipped low-grade molasses to be used for cattle feed (as I recall). I was one of the workers who, after a million-gallon tank of molasses was drained onto a railroad car, would go into the tank with rubber boots on and squeegee the last two inches of thick, syrupy stuff into the drains. It was about 130 degrees in those tanks, so we had to do it in 5-minute shifts, after which we would stumble out of the hatch into the comparably cool 110 degree New Orleans summer weather. I developed a strong motivation to go to college while doing this job.

Another temp job that Manpower sent me to was with AMF Tuboscope, which tested oil drilling pipe for structural soundness. We would spend most of the day rolling pipe into and out of the testing area. Luckily, this was mostly under a large awning in the shade.

The hours at AMF Tuboscope were 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. I remember distinctly one day being let off work at about 10 a.m. I brought my Manpower time-card into the supervisor’s office; he smiled slightly and wrote “8 hours.” I took his smile to mean, “It’s not your fault we don’t have a full day’s work for you today. You’re a temp worker trying to earn a living. Receive this as a gift.” That’s the way I took it, but he didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask. I was just happy for his generosity.

I wonder how the full-time AMF Tuboscope workers would have felt had they found out. They had to stay the full 8 hours to get their day’s wage. Would they have been happy with his generosity to me?

Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), about which I am preaching this week, tells of a generous landowner who does for the workers hired later in the day what the AMF supervisor did for me. But the full-time workers hired early in the morning don’t see it as a generous gesture for someone else. They see it as unfair treatment of them.

This initiates a dialogue which is at the heart of the parable and which gives us a glimpse into the radical grace of the Kingdom. The landowner pays the first-hired workers the agreed upon wage, and the last-hired workers with largesse. Does that make his treatment of the first workers unfair? In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) the elder son has been treated fairly but not generously. He only begins to resent this when he sees how generously the Father treats his younger brother.

It seems to me that Jesus is pointing us to a heart and a mindset that can “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15) without comparing our fortune to theirs and without being insecure about the Master’s care for us. This is difficult because in our small-heartedness (the New Testament calls this “flesh”) we base so much of our inner self-worth and outer satisfaction on how we compare with others.

In the Kingdom of God “the last,” those who typically don’t get many breaks in life, are treated especially generously. Will God’s “firsts” resent this? That’s the drama of the parable, and part of the Kingdom drama in our lives. Stop comparing. Be grateful.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Inside and Outside the Walls

This Sunday West Houston is participating in a national initiative called Be-the-Church Day,” in which congregations assemble in their regular meeting place for worship (or not), then disburse around their community to serve others in the love of Christ. The point is to express the reality that God’s intention for his church is both to assemble for worship and to be the hands and feet of Christ in our communities.

Some congregations are not meeting for worship at all, just to make the point that church should happen “outside the walls,” but I think that is misguided. The fact is that the Body of Christ is called both to assemble in worship and to serve in the world. Acts 2:42 notes that after Pentecost the followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer.” They did these things by gathering together. Indeed, the early Christians chose a term to describe themselves, ekklesia, which in secular usage referred to a public assembly. There is a sense in which the church becomes the church by assembling. Jesus says, “Where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them” (Matthew 18:20). We gather at the Table, hear the scriptures taught and preached, sing praises to God, pray, and encourage one another as we assemble.

On the other hand, the Bible records a number of instances in which God expresses his disgust for his peoples’ elaborate worship assemblies which have no connection to their daily lives, particularly inasmuch as they exploit the poor and are indifferent to the needy (see Isaiah 1:10-20, Amos 5:18-27, Micah 6:6-8). This is an important reminder to American Christians, who typically associate church with a building and often confuse “going to church” with “being the church.” I have the following conversation about once a week, it seems, with someone who finds out that I am a preacher:
Stranger: “Where is your church?”
Me: “All over northwest Houston.”
Stranger: “I mean, where IS it.”
Me: “We meet on West Rd. and Queenston, but since the church is the people of Christ, not the building, I like to say we are located all over northwest Houston.”

Yes, I am always this charming.

But I feel it is an important reminder. American Christianity is too building-centered. We tend to say “I go to such-and-such a church” not too differently than we say “I go to L.A. Fitness” or “I go to Starbucks.”

The church is a movement; it is a cause. It is Christ’s people gathering together in His name and then going out “into the mission field of our lives,” as I say each week in the benediction. We express in our daily lives “outside the walls” what we proclaim and affirm when we assemble “inside the walls.” Be-the-Church days are a good reminder of this.

So, this Sunday after our worship assembly we will spread out all over northwest Houston doing service projects for people in need, expressing the love of Christ in tangible ways.

It is part of being the church instead of just going to church. Which one best describes you?