Tribal Integrity

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And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

Genesis 4:8-9 KJV

The irony of Cain’s retort is that he was technically not his brother’s keeper- at least in the paternal sense- for Able was a grown man. He smugly asked the question to dodge the confession God was clearly importuning. Cain’s words are particularly aggravating because he was obviously not expected to be his brother’s keeper in that sense. What further revealed Cain’s callousness is that he didn’t desire to be his brother’s keeper in any sense.

Cain’s first sin was self-exoneration. In the very act of sacrifice, he revealed his own delusions of self-importance. He had prepared an offering that was displeasing to the Lord but convenient for himself. God chided Cain for his inward motives. His delusions quickly devolved into an entitled self-centeredness and then into covetousness. God compassionately warned Cain to “master his sin.” Instead he left his covetousness unbridled, and it resulted in the first murder in recorded history.

Human beings have always existed for worship of our Creator. Worship is not merely wrapped up in art or song but in the very activity of our lives. Our fellowship with God was always intended to be the hub of our existence- from it all else flows. When the parents of Cain sinned, corruption and brokenness became humanity’s inheritance. There is, of course, a greater inheritance gifted unto the children of God. But until death or the fulfillment of the second act of Christ’s coming, humanity will suffer the plight of our fallen nature.

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.”

Isaiah 14:12-15 KJV

Our befallen nature distorts our reality and predisposes us to see false gods everywhere, even in ourselves. The devil himself is our example. The story of Cain reveals to us the logical conclusions of our idolatry. His self-adulation deluded him into entitledness and thus covetousness. James reminds us “when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.”

The majority of mankind are not so murderous, but we do have a propensity toward individualism due to our delusional self-appraisal. To be clear, it is natural and necessary for one to pursue their own needs primarily, but the individualist pursues his own needs exclusively.

Humans have always been tribal by nature, and this has protected and enhanced civilizations throughout history. We are social beings who thoroughly depend upon one another. While self-concern is necessary to the success of the individual, and therefore to the tribe; individualism is damning to the tribe and therefore to the individual.
There are many variables that encourage individualism in a society, and one must be keen to break free from these influences. For they arrouse in us the greatest defects of our humanity- wantonness and vanity. Individualism may transpire into ruthless competitiveness or devestating indifference (such as neglect)- all of which diminish the integrity of the tribe. But there is another motivater that agitates our unity as a people. Fear.

I don’t mean fear in a legitimized sense. There are enemies of humanity ever pursuing havoc and seeking to goad a society into submission. They are the ones for whom fear exists. Fear is reaction. It is not a reaction that springs up to transform us into cowards. It springs up to motivate our preparedness for battle. Fear exists to be overcome, and it is overcome by tactical confrontation. In this sense, fear is an appropriate motivator. Unfortunately, fear is often treated more harmfully. In a society so motivated by comfort, virtues like courage become all but lost.

In modern western society this notion has become endemic. A successful human society has always been tribalistic. Tribalism requires that all men be keepers of their brethren, for both love and survival. Any threat to the integrity of the tribe must be dealt with properly, lest it corrode the entire society from the inside out.

In the 1980s the media helped to proliferate a pedophile scare. Anyone growing up around this time may recall the warnings to beware of perverts apparently lurking around every corner. My church even had its very own “Tickle Man.” He was a fat old man with a beard who would tickle random children. When his sordid, pedophiliac past was eventually revealed, the pastor promptly excommunicated him from the congregation.

Perhaps there was an uptick in perverts in the 80s. It’s hard to say. In the very least, a great many of them were put away or more carefully monitored. While monsters still do exist in our society, the vast majority within have, in the very least, a desire not to harm one’s neighbor. We would all be better for it if we took a step further.

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves….”

Philippians 2:3 NASB

Christ famously prepares his disciples for their ministry by admonishing them to be “gentle as doves, but wise as serpents.” We truly have an obligation to be suspect of others. In any society, trust out to be earned. The trouble comes when we lose our ability to even issue trust because we are so motivated by a fear that is rooted in the toxic generalization that every peer is a probably threat. There needs to be a sense in which we can plan for the worst but give a benefit of doubt to presume the best about others. A society crippled by fear of one another will be a society easily subjugated. Even in the absence of threats of domination, a society will be totally maimed by fear.

The integrity of a society demands personal discipline coupled with deep love and servitude for one’s family and peers. Individualism (in the form of neglect or aggression toward others) and fear (in the form of total and general societal distrust) are the acids that deteriorate the fabrics of a society. These truisms are applicable to any society, though I would argue that a society is all the better off in the presence of shared creeds that regard the reason humankind exists at all. But that is another matter.

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Invisible Oppressors

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“The scribes… were saying, “[Jesus] is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.” And He called them to Himself and began speaking to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but he is finished! But no one can enter the strong man’s house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house.”

Mark 3:22-27

The wisdom of Jesus is remarkable. In this particular exchange He is, on the surface, defending the origin of His power. In doing so, He goes on to say a great deal more. A prominent lesson to be inferred here is that internal divisions disrupt unity and pave the way for inevitable defeat. There is strength in numbers acting in solidarity with one another, but when those numbers are broken off into factions there is vulnerability. Jesus teach us also that it takes the greater strength of one to overcome the great strength of another.

Throughout history, civilizations have always been vulnerable to external and internal forces  which have been represented as foreign governments or rulers, business corporations, and political or religious ideologies. Much is said these days regarding the individual person or group’s perceived experience of “oppression.” The blame for societal oppression is often placed on racial, gender, religious, or economic groups. While injustices do occur within these parameters, it seems to me that the majority of systemic injustices are rooted in issues of class and/or ideology.

The human brain likes shortcuts and will seek to ascribe a familiar face to a threat. It could be said that our greatest enemies are those that are invisible to us in our day-to-day. The class ruler or the ideologue makes use of this tendency of the human brain and so seeks to persuade the members of a society to cast blame unreservedly on their own peers (based on superficial identifiers) in an effort to divide them into factions. Once divided, they are more easily brought unto the heel.

The irony of this, of course, is that the members of a society will waste their time bickering or warring with one another all while unwittingly being subjected to shared injustices. There is strength in numbers, and we take on our enemies by “binding the strong man.” but we are so often weakened by division.

While we can draw these lessons from Christ and apply them to our experience of earthly injustices, Jesus is referring more directly to spiritual tormenters. Every human being is alienated from God because of their sin. This alienation renders us vulnerable to Satan and his kingdom- the enemies of our souls. This sinful nature is what drives humanity to act unjustly  in the first place.

Because our sins alienate us from God, they set us on a course to hell where we will forever remain alienated from Him. There is no earthy life or afterlife to be truly cherished unless the terms of this alienation are rectified. Jesus came to earth to do just that. When He died on the cross, He bore the punishment of our sins. He bore injustice that He might justify us before God. When He resurrected from the dead (for death is a curse for sin for which He was not worthy) He made it possible for us to be made spiritually alive- to be restored to our fellowship with God.

Even after this fellowship is restored Christians are still affected by the evil nature of these bodies in which we dwell. With God’s help we fight against this sinful nature all of our lives. The sin has influence in our lives, but it no longer has power to subdue us and to formally separate us from God. Because of that, it removes the power of Satan in our lives. Jesus Christ is greater than the “strong man,” and He gives us authority in Himself to oppose our (invisible) spiritual enemies and to subdue them. Our individual fellowship with God must emerge into corporate fellowship with other believers. God invites us into His kingdom and calls on us to spread His Gospel that others all the world over might know such freedom.

 

You Must Embarrass Yourself

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“…Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart. …and said ‘How the king of Israel distinguished himself today! He uncovered himself today in the eyes of his servants’ maids as one of the foolish ones shamelessly uncovers himself!’ So David said, ‘It was before the LORD, who chose me above your father and above all his house, to appoint me ruler of the people of the LORD, over Israel; therefore I will celebrate the LORD. I will be more lightly esteemed than this and will be humble in my own eyes….”

2 Samuel 6:16b, 20b-22a NASB

King David was well-known for his charismatic and intense spirit. He was called a man after God’s own heart. We can learn a lot from his life, both in terms of what to do and what not to do. Not everyone is going to match the vigor of David’s spirit, as we are all gifted differently with varying temperaments. But there is one area in which we must all strive to be like him, and that is in our willingness to embarrass ourselves.

I’ve recently been sharing my thoughts on Christian evangelism. In my last post I discussed how evangelism is obligatory for Christians. I received some thoughtful feedback on the matter. One reader discussed his personal struggle with pursuing evangelism. In summation, he said that his reluctance to evangelize is informed by an avoidance of personal risk derived from the social intimidation that comes with the thought of being negatively associated with certain Christians.

The Scriptures have much to say regarding this matter. Jesus told His disciples that if others rejected them, it was actually Jesus who they were rejecting (Luke 10). He says also that the world will know they belong to Christ when they see the love that Christians have for one another (John 13). Jesus says also in His famous Sermon on the Mount:

“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:16 NASB

In other words, if we love God we will be driven to love others and to good works. When the watching world sees the love we have and the righteous deeds we perform, they will know that we are of God. When we are pursuing and living for God, our lives become a window to nonbelievers into the person of Christ. Our love for God will motivate us to obedience and will stir in us a love and compassion toward others. Our love for others will draw us toward sharing the Gospel with others. Many will reject us! But is not us they reject, but Christ- provided we are living according to Christ’s teachings.

If nonbelievers reject the message, we need not be ashamed for sharing the message. It is God who, as the Psalmist says, “illumines [our] darkness” (18:28b). So long as they are in darkness, they will respond as those who are in darkness. We do not help them to see the light of Christ by covering it to avoid their (or our own) personal discomfort. The Gospel will change them. We must never change the Gospel.

Jesus also tells His disciples to “count the cost” of discipleship (Luke 14). Being a disciple of Christ will require personal sacrifice, often in the form of personal discomfort. Fortunately, we have as our example One Who gave His body willingly to be tortured, stripped, and crucified for the sake of our salvation. There is no sacrifice too great to make on behalf of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul reminds us of the suffering he endured for the Gospel. He counted as gain everything he lost for the sake of Christ. And everything he gained, he esteemed as dung (Philippians 3:8). He spoke of his evangelical pursuits as a race for which he exercised great discipline to win (1 Corinthians 9). His prize was to fulfill the work of Christ.

These Scriptures present to us a great personal challenge. Are we willing to esteem God above all others? Jesus says that to follow Him, we must proverbially hate everyone and everything else in comparison (Luke 14). It is only by this estimation that we can ever publicly shame ourselves to live a life of overt praise as David did. And it is only by this estimation that we be made willing to endure personal discomfort and any other more severe manner of sacrifice.

The call to evangelism is first a call to total love for and surrender to God. When He is the object of our affections, no earthly shame will matter. Do you love God this way? If not, ask Him to tune your heart to sing His grace. As the hymnist Robert Robinson writes:

“Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.”

 

 

Evangelism is Not an Elective

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“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you….”

Matthew 28:19-20a NASB

As He ascended into Heaven, Christ parted with words that would set the tone for the entire future of Christendom. His disciples would go on to obey this edict and take the Gospel to the the whole of the known world. The Church of Jesus Christ continues to pursue this mission to this day. Some of them do, anyway.

In my last post I recalled a recent experience in which I totally disregarded an opportunity to evangelize a stranger. This experience was disappointing for me, despite the fact that I’ve not recently had a tendency to evangelize, probably due to distraction and self-centeredness.

In the preceding weeks, God had begun to stir up a passion in my heart toward these matters. This is always the origin of Christian evangelism. As the late Keith Green said, “You put this love in my heart.” Evangelism arrises from an overflow of love and gratitude for our Savior. It is mercifully driven by His work in us.

“…[The religious authorities] commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Acts 4:18b-20 NASB

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When confronted by opposing religious authorities, Peter and John expressed an INABILITY to stop preaching the Gospel. They were so wrapped up in their love for and thankfulness toward Christ that they couldn’t help but tell all about it to others. Their love for and fellowship with Christ led to a compassion for others, to see them become believers of His Gospel.

The day after my aforementioned experience, I had an experience of another sort. I work at a homeless shelter and have recently gotten to know a man who is staying there. Before I left for the day I struck up a conversation with him. He told me that he was moving out soon. As I was about to leave, I felt a compulsion to share Christ with Him. I almost ignored it entirely, but I was constrained by the Holy Spirit.

I began conversing with him, prayerfully seeking an opportunity to mention Christ. Finally he made mention of a local Christian ministry at which he had attended some services and performed some court-ordered community service hours. I abruptly asked him, “Are you a Christian?”

He pinched his fingers together as he informed me that he believed in the power of prayer and that he felt like he was “almost there”- almost ready to commit himself to God. I sat down and talked with him for a while, and he began to tell me his life story. He kept stopping and saying, “I’ve never told anyone this stuff before. I don’t know why I’m telling you.” I answered some questions he had and persistently shared the Gospel.

As we wrapped up, I asked if I could pray for him. He eagerly gave me his hands, and we prayed. As I left he kept remarking on how amazing it was that this conversation had occurred, as he has been on the fence with these matters. I gave him my number and went on my way, assuring him that I only spoke with him because I felt God leading me to do so.

Although circumstances like this have been normative in my life in times past, this entire episode was a unique experience for my life in recent years. My hope is that, through God’s help and courage, I begin to seek out evangelistic opportunities elsewhere. It has been natural for me and so many Christians to disregard this critical piece of Christian living.

We are not only called to lead righteous and holy lives, but to love God and to love one another. Jesus tells us in John’s gospel that if we “love Him, [we] will keep His commandments.” Therefore, if we love Him, we will obey the call to share the Gospel persistently with others.

Might I challenge you, as I am being challenged, to pursue a pure fellowship with Christ through the Spirit of God? Will you make specific requests of Him that He will surround you with His Spirit and keep you in His steps? That He will give you a love and a passion for Him that overflows into a deep love for others? That you will be granted wisdom, opportunity, and courage to share His Gospel to those you meet? He commands it! Evangelism is not an elective for the child of Jesus Christ!

 

Fresh Eyes

I manage a kitchen at a homeless shelter that sits on a one-way street in an industrial park. The road is often blocked with delivery trucks, construction rigs, fire engines, or commonly as I saw tonight- an EMT squad. I got into my car to leave, turned around at the sight of the blockage, and headed in the opposite direction to the main road. Due to light traffic, it easy to take for granted that these one-way streets are public. People frequently drive down them in the wrong direction. It is common to do so before becoming familiarized with the layout of the property. Tonight, I had no choice but to exit against the current.

I recalled the first time I ever set foot in the shelter. I went in for an interview, and then I returned to help serve dinner a few nights later. The shelter is newly built and generally well maintained, but the clientele turn general maintenance into an uphill endeavor. I remember the freshly painted but sickly color scheme that all of the walls wore like vomit. I remember the smell of human feces and cheap cigarettes. The smell of chemicals to mask it all. I remember the vastness of the building. Every corridor went into an endless and unknown expanse. Every door was locked, and what hid behind each one was a mystery. After a single night of volunteering I was eventually offered position which I then accepted on a whim.

Day after day I returned to the shelter. A year later the color scheme still looks queazy, but I am able to see through it now. On any given day, I might be greeted with aromas of soiled jeans and  sweats. Second hand smoke of the lowest grade cigarettes still lingers through several panes of glass. I recoil, but only briefly. I breath through my mouth until I can make it into one of the locked rooms where the scents cannot linger. I know every room and corridor in the building now. Despite its magnitude, there is little mystery in it anymore. It has all become so familiar.

I have experienced this sensation everywhere I have ever been employed. Familiarity shrinks the expanse that newness gives. Fresh eyes become stale. It is not that there is no mystery left. It is that I have stopped wondering. Is this not the natural response to anyone’s experience of any person, place, or thing- to develop this sense that one’s relationship with anything can somehow be exhausted? I may become bored of anything or anyplace or anyone, but it is not familiarity that causes boredom. It is a lack thereof.

Repetition brings about sensations of familiarity. In the absence of wonder, boredom sets in and makes one disengaged from the reality before them. When sensations die, when awe and curiosity cease, the experience of our subject becomes passive. We stop experiencing things for what they are, because what they are is always deeper than the surface. Boredom passively takes for granted those intricacies buried beneath. Newness always brings with it sensations of wonder that fuel interest and curiosity. As those sensations fade, it is only humility and discipline of the mind that allow us to discover new things. Familiarity transcends into intimacy. That which was familiar and stale is suddenly infused with newness. And so it is with everything.