Saturday, July 16, 2011

Obedient Listening

In English, the concepts of “listening” and “obedience” are expressed by different words. But in Romanian, “listening” and “obedience” are expressed using the same word. The same is true in Latin where the word oboedire means “to listen or obey”. In an issue of “The Cry”, a quarterly magazine published by the mission organization Word Made Flesh, April Folkertsma, a missionary to Romania, reflecting upon the close connection between listening and obeying says that listening requires active involvement. Hearing, on the other hand, is much more passive. It doesn’t require involvement. I recall an incident during my student days that illustrates the difference between hearing and listening. A friend and I were talking when a mutual acquaintance came up and asked “How are you?” My friend explained he was in the middle of a horrible week. His wife and kids had had the flu for several days, requiring that he stay home, he was therefore swamped with his studies and had just failed a midterm exam. Whereupon our acquaintance said “That’s nice” and walked away. While he had heard the words, he had failed to listen and respond appropriately. To move from merely hearing to listening requires an active response that demonstrates that we have understood what we have heard and that it has changed our lives.

Listening to God requires a choice – either obedience or disobedience. It is never neutral or uninvolved. But in our modern parlance we have divorced listening from obedience. Modern listening has therefore also become passive. It doesn’t require our active involvement. Perhaps this is what is meant when the prophet Isaiah says “You will be ever hearing, but never understanding, you will be ever seeing, but never perceiving.” (Isa 6:9). Hearing and seeing are both passive. They don’t require a response. The words basically go in one ear and out the other. The alternative, understanding and perceiving, requires action. Like listening, they require a response of obedience. As Isaiah says, it is only by the action associated with obedience that the goal is reached – to turn and be healed (v. 10). St Paul, in writing to the churches, has this in mind. Most of the verbs he uses are imperatives; commands expected to be obeyed. He writes with the expectation that when his letters are read to the churches they will respond with obedience.

But in our modern world obedience has become passé. We don’t like to be told what to do. We don’t want to obey rules. We want to be the masters of our own lives. In our hustle bustle world we also don’t take the time necessary to reflect upon and understand the words which we do hear or see in print. We don’t ruminate upon them, turning them over in our minds, evaluating them. Therefore, we don’t really listen. But obedience demonstrates that we have truly listened. The words we have heard have penetrated into the depths of our soul, requiring a response which we freely make out of love for our Father in Heaven. Obedience demonstrates that we really have listened, for what we have heard changes us. Perhaps this is why the Bible places obedience upon such a high plane. In God’s eyes, obedience is more important than worship. Worship can be perfunctory. Active obedience, based on love shows our responsiveness to the word of God. As opposed to merely hearing, it shows a responsiveness to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Upon reflection, are you a true listener or merely a hearer of the word?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Human Worth

Behind the narcissistic attitudes exhibited by many people in today’s society, behind the “death with dignity” slogan fostered by the euthanasia movement, behind much of existential philosophy which believes everything is relative, allowing persons to do what they want, is the desire for the beholder of these viewpoints to be God. To this list we can add the problem of pride, not hate, which for many Christians is the antithesis of love. Each of these has the problem of turning ourselves into our own deity, with the false idea that we are not only the most important person in the universe, but are also totally in control of our lives and destiny.

The main character in the novel The Stranger by Albert Camus is the quintessential existentialist. Throughout the book he continues to hold that life has no meaning. His brief encounters with other people have no lasting value. His life is very individualistic. Nothing matters. It makes no difference whether one lives or dies, marries or stays single. There are no absolutes, everything is relative. As a result, life, and one’s very existence, is futile. Mankind is inconsequential. He has no worth nor dignity. He is a stranger, even to himself.

The outgrowth of this existential philosophy has dire consequences for today’s world, and easily leads one to be a proponent of euthanasia. If individual humans have no dignity; we are not much more than a blob of protoplasm. If life has no meaning, it cannot be considered to be sacred. As a consequence, the only remaining dignity that a person can have, as its proponents argue, is to die with “dignity”. Society, as a whole, has bought into the viewpoint that non productive individuals have no value, thus no dignity. This attitude primarily impacts the most fragile in society – the unborn, the infant, the elderly and those with special needs. If life itself has no meaning, they become expendable, as we have seen in the mandated end of life counseling in the new national health care laws and in Roe versus Wade.

In assisted suicide, we see attempts to play God. We strive to be in control of our own destiny, choosing for ourselves the moment of death. Ironically, the loss of real dignity that our modern worldview has foistered upon us only makes the void more noticeable as we vainly strive to seek to find some final dignity in the moment of death, a dignity that has eluded us in our existential existence.

The advocates of abortion have succumbed to the false view of dignity that our society holds. If dignity and worth are tied to what we do, infants and the unborn have no value, for they are not productive individuals. Instead they are a drain on society because they require so much of our attention. As such, they are a burden, thus expendable. To solve this difficulty, ancient societies practiced infant abandonment and exposure. Our society practices abortion.

Our loss of dignity contributes to the narcissism so prevalent in our society. The narcissist, as a lover of self, thinks only of himself and his pleasure. Without the significance that comes from having dignity in the eyes of God and of each other, our own selfish pleasure becomes the highest goal of life.

Our true dignity comes from having been created in the image of God. From the moment of conception till the moment of death we are persons with great dignity. As his children, he affirms our worth. What is the source of your worth? Is it bound up in yourself or your relationship with God?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Separatists, Culturalists and Restorers

Gabe Lyons, in The Next Christians describes three types of Christians, the Separatist, the Cultural and the Restorer. Each type can be further subcategorized. Among the Separatists are the Insiders. Most of Insiders time revolves around Christian activities. They only send their children to Christian schools, only listen to Christian music. read Christian books, etc. Their lives revolve around the safety of church. While their motive to live holy lives separated from the degradation seen in the culture around them is pure, they have great difficulty in engaging the culture in which they live without being judgmental. There are also the Cultural Warriors who consider that America and Christianity are deeply intertwined. To their credit, they are passionately concerned about our moral decline as a nation. They seek out politicians who support their positions on abortion, gay rights, etc. But they also have difficulty engaging a society which no longer believes in the value of the Judeo Christian heritage upon which our country was founded. Finally, among the Separatists, are the Evangelizers who believe that the only Christian activity of any value is getting people saved and will go to any means to see that accomplished. They reach out with the best of motives, but many times their technique turns off those they are trying to reach.

Among the Cultural are the Blenders. They attempt to blend so well with society that it becomes very hard to even identify them as Christians. They want to be like everyone else, attempting to be relevant and seeker friendly as a way of reaching their community. There are also the Philanthropists whose focus is upon social concerns and good works. In their zeal they often miss what the essence of the gospel is about – restoring people’s lives to a relationship with God through the grace that Jesus offers.

The Restorers have a different mission than the other two groups. Lyons states that their mission is to “infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice and love.” While acknowledging that our broken world will not be completely healed until Christ’s return, they seek to be a part of Christ’s healing ministry by attempting to assist in healing the broken spiritual and physical lives of the people around them. Instead of separating from or blending in, they engage the culture in which they live. Instead of being offended by what goes on around them they are provoked to become involved in making change. Instead of judging, they love the broken ones around them because they realize that they are just as broken and that it is only the grace of God that has rescued them. They use their talents, gifts and passions to make a difference in their world, affecting their jobs, their neighborhoods, their schools, their community, promoting the common good. As Lyons observes, “They are motivated to bring the love of Christ into every broken system they encounter.”

This is how Christianity grew by 40 percent per decade over its first three centuries. The early Christians were restorers. To the multitudes of homeless and impoverished in the large cities of the Greco-Roman world it gave hope. To the newcomers who migrated from the rural to the urban areas it offered community. To the many widows and orphans it brought family. In place of ethnic strife it yielded total acceptance. During famine, catastrophes and times of plague it brought compassion and care.

As we examine our lives, which of these three categories do we most identify with? Are we Separatists, Culturalists or Restorers? Which do we want to be?