Thursday, March 28, 2013

The New Birth

John 3:1-15
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  

1 Peter 1:3-5
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

1 Peter 1:22-23
22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;

From these texts, and their given contexts, we can determine a few things about the "new birth" or about being "born again."

First, it is required.  It is essential.  I do not mean it is required as in, "If you don't get 'born again' God won't let you in."  I mean there is a connection between being born again and our ability to even see the Kingdom of God.  John 3:3 says that unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.  Modern English can prove confusing on this point, since many of us as children still asked, "Can I go to the bathroom?"  What we really meant was, "May I go to the bathroom?"  We were asking for permission.  Can or cannot refers to ability, not permission.  Jesus is here talking about ability.  Unless a man is born again, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.  He is blind to it.  It is the Greek word dunatai, which means "able".  It is the same Greek word used in a similar statement, which I believe is talking about the same thing, in John 6:44, where Jesus said, "No man is able [dunatai] to come to me unless the Father draws him..."

So, when Jesus says that you must be born again, what He means is that this "being born again" thing must happen to you in order for you to have the ability to see, come to Jesus, etc.  It therefore precedes "seeing" and, if I am right about the connection to John 6:44, "coming" (which in the context is obviously figurative for "believing").

Second, it is something that happens to you.  I try not to spend too much time pointing out the obvious, but the phrase is "born again", not "choose anew" or something like that.  Birth is something that happens to you.  It is the act which is required to happen to you in order for you to live your new life in the world.  Peter is explicit in 1 Peter 1:3 in stating that God caused it to happen for us.  When one is born, one is not a cooperative party, involved in partnership.  One is helpless.  Birth is the beginning of your new life and the unfolding of your nature.

Third, it is normative for Christians.  Peter assumes the readers, as Christians, are all included in it.  He says how God has "caused us..." to be born again, for example.  Combined with the previous two observations, which are from the texts in John, you can see that this is a normative fact for Christians, not some optional or subsequent future experience.  If you aren't born again, you aren't a Christian.  If you are born again, there is something new alive inside of you, out of which you are able to "see" and "come" to Jesus.

Fourth, it happens by the Spirit.  Jesus calls being born again being "born of the Spirit."  The Holy Spirit is somehow at work to bring about the new birth.  This is yet another reason why I believe John 6, one of my favorite chapters in the New Testament, is talking about the new birth, among other things.

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:60-65)

This small section essentially ties up the conversation Jesus has been having about Him being the "bread of life", the unbelief of his hearers, and how such belief is the result of God's action, of God granting it, of the Father drawing and opening eyes.  In other words, Jesus is essentially explaining to their face why they don't get it ("This is why I told you...").  They are blind.  The Spirit has not given them life.

Fifth, it happens through the Word of God.  This, I believe, connects to Romans 10 where Paul says that "faith comes by hearing... hearing the Word about Christ."  The means or instrument which God uses, by the Spirit, to cause us to be born again is the Word of God or more specifically the truth of the Gospel.  This is why, if my understanding is correct, Luther said that the new birth is faith.  I'm not sure I agree completely, but Luther picks up on the strong connection between the two.  If they are not the same thing, one awakens the other.  The lights go on.  Your eyes have been opened.  You take your first breath as a new creature with new sight and new lungs.

Further comments:  I believe the "bread of life" discussion in John 6 sheds amazing light on the dynamics of this event, of who is at work in it, and of what humanity looks like in the absence of this divine work.  There are various verbs Jesus ascribes to the Father in this section of Scripture in regards to His activity toward people, and I believe, given the context, that Jesus is referring to the same thing with all of them.  The Father gives people to the Son (v. 37, 39), the Father draws people (v. 44, and the Father grants something to people (v. 65).  But the giving, drawing, granting is effectual.  It seems clear to me, especially in verses such as verse 37 where it says "all that the Father gives to me will come to me", that this activity of the Father, by the Spirit, yields people "coming" to Jesus to embrace and eat of Him as the Bread of life.  Belief results, every time, from this activity of the Father.  This does not mean that God does the believing for us.  It means, I believe, that believing, coming, eating, or however you want to say it, is the natural activity of a person whom the Father has given to the Son.  I believe this is the same thing spoken of in the verses about new birth.  God opens our eyes, grants us a new spiritual life within us, through hearing the Word, applied by the Holy Spirit, and the natural results -like breathing- is to see and believe in and eat of Jesus.

Not that experience is the litmus test of truth, but this conforms to my experience.  There was a time when suddenly the lights went on, where I saw that my delusion of "goodness" was just that, and where I saw that Jesus did everything I needed on my behalf and was who I needed.  I did not choose to have that change of heart, that new perspective.  It fell upon me through someone telling me about the cross of Christ.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My Short Pro and Con Thoughts about the Gay Marriage Debate

Here are the cons
-God's Word is the Bible, and the Bible shows homosexuality as being sinful, as being against God's design for human sexuality.  It is by no means some kind of special sin.  It is one of many sins, and it is one of many sexual sins.  Also, marriage was created as between a man and a woman.  There is a complimentarianism in the design between the two genders.  In short, I have a very hard time voting to endorse something that I know God hates.

-Marriage is not just about personal and private fulfillment and happiness.  We tend to think that it is, which may possibly be one of the reasons the divorce rate is so high -for marriage was not intended to carry such a load.  I believe marriage is the fundamental building block of family and community.  I believe if we mess with that, it will impact human community and society to some degree, and that degree is unpredictable.

But here are the pros
-In the United States, we Christians enjoy many liberties.  Armchair-activists whine about things like how we are not allowed to pray in school (which is untrue... it is, as I understand it, merely that public schools cannot mandate prayer), and others chide on about Obama and the political left and how they are wrecking this country, but how often do we really sit back and thank God and our country for the fact that we can pray, think, speak about, and worship God basically however we want?  How often do we really think about how great it is that we have the liberty to publicly blame Obama or whine about how public schools do not mandate prayer?  We basically have the right to do and think and say and believe whatever we want so long as it does not violate the rights of someone else.  These are things not found everywhere in this world, not by a long shot.  But here's the problem.  We have these liberties in the good ol' USA only because these liberties are open to EVERYONE.  Islam, among the litany of other cults and religions represented in this country, is morally and theologically wrong and abhorrent to God, but we permit muslims to practice Islam here.  Why?  Because although it is wrong we understand that the freedom for Muslims to practice Islam is the same freedom that allows us to practice Christianity.  If we seek to shoot down this freedom for Muslims because Islam is wrong then we are shooting this freedom down for everyone, including ourselves.  To me, that is scary.  This same principle applies to the gay marriage issue, I believe.  Although I believe homosexual union is wrong and abhorrent to God, our personal and private liberties are important to safeguard because they do not only protect the homosexuals but they protect you and I.  If we shoot them down, if we start feeding the government, giving it more control over the private spheres of life, it will come back to bite everyone, including us. 

Why can we support things like religious liberty even though it endorses the freedom to practice ungoldy religions but we cannot support this freedom?  Why the double-standard?  And why do so many Christians make this such a pet issue?  I'm really not sure.

-What message are we sending gays and the broader culture as Christians?  Wouldn't it be something like this:  "We are ok with how our country supports religious and civil liberties, but only when it supports our personal religious and civil liberties.  The rest of you all can go to hell."  It promotes the very negative stereotype about Christians which is that we really only care about ourselves and our tribe.  This is destructive, it is anti-Gospel, and it should be untrue of us.  We should be those who care about the common good, who love all of our neighbors, who strive for the betterment and support of everyone, not just ourselves.

I can't believe I'm actually saying this, but I think I am becoming a supporter of gay marriage rights.  It is not because I support homosexuality.  I cannot support homosexuality any more than I can support adultery or fornication or greed or stealing.  It is because I support the US government upholding our common liberties.  I support government staying out of our private lives unless it is causing clear harm to and violating the rights of others (such as with abortion).  The ideal world I long for is not here yet.  In the meantime, it behooves me to support rights which endow freedoms to all of us, and it behooves me to seek ways to love those I disagree with.  To love my neighbor, whether Mulsim, Catholic, Mormon, black, white, gay, straight, or whatever.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fred Rogers Acceptance Speech

Apparently, today is Mr. Rogers' birthday.  Derek Webb shared this short video on Facebook, naming Fred Rogers as one of his "heroes."  I agree.

This short little speech brings to mind so much. 

Remember those who love and have loved you, who poured themselves into you, who helped shape who and where you are today.  You remember the ones.  They were the ones who touched your soul, who saw you, not merely the ones who gave you lots of things.  Remember what it was like to be that open, that un-self-conscious, that child-like, that un-defended, that connectable to be able to share partnership without even knowing what it was called.

This reminds me of the kind of person I want to be.  I want to be able to give that to others, to make an impact where it matters, to be able to connect with others and have it make a lasting and positive impact on them.  I want those closest to me to remember me as being close to them, as being able to love and receive love without restraint and without regret.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Why "Feeling Bad" for Your Kids is So Bad

Yes, we do not want to neglect our kids.  Yes, we do not want to hurt them and break them.  That doesn't seem like rocket science, does it?  We all, as parents, want to the avoid those obvious errors.  Kids need nurturing, and they need to be able to feel safe in their home, so neglect, verbal, emotional, and physical abuse, and a home filled with strife and hostility are things all of us want to avoid for our children.  I hope we're all on the same page so far, right?

But I have learned the hard way that the opposite error is also quite damaging to them: walking around, feeling bad for them as though they are deprived, fragile, neglected victims.  "Poor little Johnny", resonates in our minds, even unconsciously, impacting the way we treat them and, in turn, how they act and see themselves in this world.  We feel afraid for them... afraid that they are or will be damaged because of something that happened.  We feel bad.  We feel guilty. 

So we over-indulge them, we expect too little of them, we are inconsistent with consequences and discipline, we have no boundaries with them, allowing them to walk all over us, we fear raising our voices so as not to damage their fragile little egos, and we treat them like they are poor little babies who missed out on or lack something.  Maybe we feel guilty for our own failures, real or imagined.  Maybe we feel bad because of unwanted circumstances that we could not or cannot presently do anything about.  Whatever the reason is, when we act in this way toward them, a number of very, very bad things happen.

First of all, we are suppressing our true selves. For example, we are suppressing the good anger we feel when they act out, anger that could manifest itself in healthy correction and instruction. We are instead presenting to them a one-downed, milquetoast version of ourselves that is easy to manipulate and always afraid of doing anything that might cause a bad reaction. And because of that, the burial of our feelings only lasts so long... until we blow up on them.  After our angry explosion, we feel guilty and bad for them even more, only perpetuating this destructive cycle.

Second, we are treating them in a very harmful way. Kids who are treated like they can't do anything for themselves believe they can't do anything for themselves because that is what we are teaching them. Kids who are treated like they are fragile believe they are fragile because that is what we are teaching them. Kids who are treated like they are victims believe they are victims because that is what we are teaching them. Kids who are treated like they are deprived believe they are deprived because that is what we are teaching them. And if that isn't bad enough, still more might happen... you wind up with a child who is not just sullen and insecure but a monster: an angry child with an overbearing sense of entitlement, believing that the world is unfair because it should always help them out, feel bad for them, running to their every request, and coddle them like an over-protective mother.

The best thing you can do for your kids is to stop feeling "bad" for them. If you put that on them they will use it. They will either fulfill the role you put on them as the fragile, insecure victim or they will learn to be manipulative tyrants or both.

Whatever it is that makes you feel bad for them, let it go.  They best thing you can do for them is to be consistent with age-appropriate expectations and consequences.  Treat them like the equal they are becoming.  Treat them like little people who can learn, can face adversity, can bounce back, can make decisions, and most of all can be expected to act kindly and responsibly for themselves in this world.

Yes, I expect you to listen to me.
Yes, I expect you to not yell.
Yes, I expect you to not hit, stomp, and throw tantrums.
Yes, I expect you to pick up after yourself.
Yes, I expect you to be able to do things by yourself and not need constant attention.
Yes, I expect you to be able to get along with others.
Yes, I expect you to help out around the house.
Yes, I expect you to understand that you cannot always get what you want.
Yes, I expect you to understand that I (and others) cannot and will not always drop everything to run to your every request. You are important to me, but the world does not revolve around you and that is ok.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Law and Grace on the Horizontal

Law on the veritical is about God's right over us, to expect and require us to fulfill our humanity.  Grace on the vertical is about how God sacrificed His Son to deal with the problem of the Law for us, to have us and make peace with us, as a gift that we cannot and could never earn.

Law on the horizontal is about my rights; it is about what is "right." Grace on the horizontal is about thinking of the good of another and sacrificing your rights to give it to them. Law expects, exacts, requires, and even demands. Grace gives, sacrifices, forgives, and covers.

But what is interesting is that both need each other.  It is not that they "balance" each other.  One gives meaning and fulfillment and life to the other.  The solution is not to find a "happy medium" between the two.  Let me explain.
Law without a backdrop of grace may be technically in the "right," but it is cruel and harsh and unrelenting.

Grace without a backdrop of law may be "nice," but it amounts to little more than spinless people-pleasing.

Here is an example.  Let's say your teenager had a friend over and they stayed up all night long.  It is a Saturday morning now, and they are both dead to the world.  It is 9:30am, and you need to clean up the kitchen and do other chores around the house.  You normally listen to loud music while doing that -really loud, fast music. 

Law would say, "It is your house.  It is not your fault that they stayed up all night.  Turn on the music and have at it.  If it wakes them up, that is not your problem."  But Grace says, "I will clean the kitchen with no music or at least with low music.  I can handle that in order for them to sleep.  They had a good time, and I will let them recover."

But what happens if Grace forgets the backdrop of Law?  You believe you have no rights.  It is no longer a gift to allow them to sleep in -it is their right.  The gift becomes cheap, easy, even expected.  It becomes what is due.  Reality is lost, and the rights and expectations are flipped on their head.

Isn't that ironic?  When Grace forgets the backdrop of Law, it finds a way to wiggle back in there somewhere.  But this time it comes in not to give fullness and meaning to Grace but to turn against it and distort it into a form of weak-willed compliance.  Grace becomes confused, warped.  We do this to God when we imagine that it is "His job" to simply forgive us, so that we can go on living in license however we wish.  It isn't His job.  His "job" is to be just and holy.  His nature objectively hates sin and burns against it.  It is grace that He forgives, not something that is owed or due to us.  It is a gift.  When we forget that what is really owed to us is wrath and exile from God, forgiveness becomes cheap and... expected.  The Lawgiver becomes the one on trial, under our law that expects Him to behave as we wish.  There is a kind of sick role reversal.

Some of us are habitually and compulsively giving.  Others of us are overly assertive and used to asserting our "rights", even at the expense of others.  Is the best answer a middle-ground or something completely other, a third option?

I think Jesus answers that for us.  If you read Philippians 2, the apostle Paul exhorts us toward humility, toward putting the interests of others before ours.  The example he uses of course is Jesus.  Jesus owed us nothing.  Jesus owed the Father nothing, either -their relationship did not work like that.  Jesus voluntarily put aside His divinity, taking on the form of a bondservant.  It was grace, pure grace.  Yet the backdrop of that grace, the thing that makes that grace so amazing, is the reality of who Jesus is and who we are.  Jesus is the divine Son, worthy of all the rights in the universe and beyond.  We are sinners, rebels, rejectors of God in how we live, in what we think, and in what we love.  Yet He chose to put that aside and give us Himself.  He chose to put Himself in subservience to the Father, to become a servant, for our sakes.

Humility is not thinking that you have no rights, that your time is not your own, that your gifts and talents are an open room for anyone to enter and take and steal from, while you are left depleted and exhausted.  It is recognizing your rights yet putting them aside to give something to another.  It is Grace, grace on top of Law.  It is not the absence of rights.  It is not allowing others to take advantage of us like a city with no walls.  It is not imposed or required.  It is voluntarily and selectively putting those rights aside for another.

I believe only the Gospel can really produce this in us -as we see this done for us by Someone much, much greater than ourselves.