I’ve had some thoughts banging around in my heart over the last couple of weeks, and I feel like maybe the Spirit would like me to write them. But where to start? Hmmm…
About 6 years ago we were Stateside and I was speaking in a fellowship. There was time for Q&A, and one fella asked me, “Now that you’ve lived in another culture, what’s the thing the church in America is missing? How are we blind and don’t know it?”
Wow. Big question. I don’t recall my answer. It was hopefully something like, “I’ve only been gone a year, so I have no idea.”
A few years later, again, back in the States, I was at a conference and we were praying or singing or something and I was struck with the realization that the pervading spirit in Narnya is despair. I don’t know if I mean an actual demon specifically tasked with making people despair, but I do see now that the vast majority of Narnyans go through life convinced that nothing they do matters and that nothing will ever change. They operate with no hope, and it pervades the church, as well. That was a big step for us to realize.
After that, glancing back at my home culture became much easier, and my line of sight was a little clearer. There’s no condemnation in this – every culture views the world through cracked and cloudy lenses. This is not the primary point of this little article, but it sets the stage for an important contrast that I hope will leave you with more courage and better accuracy as you follow Jesus where you are. The pervading spirit I feel when I am in the States, taking in media, talking with believing and unbelieving friends, is fear. The story that seems to always be on everyone’s lips is a fearful one – either a story of impending doom, or a story about how to avert it with this product, that medicine, this investment strategy, or that lifestyle. Feeling this mist enter my own blood again, I’ve looked around and I think I’ve noticed a few things about the presiding American cultural narrative.
It appears that that Americans:
- Seem to believe that something started existing the moment they noticed it. Here’s an example. A toddler was recently killed by an alligator at Disney World. That is just horrible. Of course, the story was all over the news. It was all over Yahoo! news over here. But then, other alligator attacks started showing up online all over the place. Last week I even read of a hyena killing a toddler. Of course, the toddler was asleepâ€¦in a nature preserve for hyenas. Do you see what I’m getting at? Absolutely, every one of these stories is appalling. But if you follow the news you get the feeling (it’s a feeling that is carefully being cultivated by the people producing the news so you both feel “in the know” and like you need more info) that these attacks are unusual. In fact, there has been no uptick in toddlers being attacked by wild animals. This didn’t start when America noticed it. It’s always been going on. At a pretty even pace, more or less. This attitude, that it’s happening more and more because I notice it more and more, has a name. It’s called the adolescent mind. It’s a characteristic of adolescence that things become real only as I experience them, and they began when I noticed them. Americans are famous all over the world for this attitude. Sorry. Again, no judgement, just observation.
- Americans (me included) seem to have an unconscious internal program running that insists that all of us were endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable responsibilities – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A) We have the responsibility to stay alive. At any cost. This makes disease and death the most frightening thing ever, and makes the cancer journalists the most highly paid and sought-after tabloid writers in the market. We have created a new narrative with a new villain named Disease. And now we are all responsible to eat clean (suggesting a moral component to food), do CrossFit and have washboard abs, and stay impossibly athletic into our 80s. That’s all good stuff, but that’s not what defines “good”. B) We have the responsibility to do what we want – liberty. It’s been observed that the dominant cultural marker of millennials has been “keeping my options open”. God forbid I make a commitment and then miss out on something I want because I limited my freedom to keeping my vows and promises, stated or implied. C) And we have the responsibility to be happy. We have become a nation not of citizens, but of consumers of government. We seek not enlightenment, but entertainment. Our churches work to keep us happy, not to make us holy. We confuse opulence for security and sedation for comfort. This is our great shame.
- The North American worldview is basically mechanistic. We believe that everything exists in a cause-effect relationship. Every time something good or bad happens, we look to see the “because”. Further, we experience the universe more as a machine than a mystery. Think of the number of sermons you’ve heard that enumerate “keys” to marriage, leading, following, growing, whatever. Keys get put in ignitions, in machines, so we can make them do what we want. Our cultural story is less about inhabiting a mystery and more about mastering a machine. This also makes us reductionistic – we look for the ONE solution, and this leads us to oversimplify in our quest to control what happens to us (remember, we have the responsibility to stay alive and happy, no matter the cost).
Now, understand, I am an American. I’m glad I’m an American. I love America. I’m writing this on the 4th of July 🙂 There are many excellent things in the American worldview. Things that make us industrious, tolerant of risk, personally responsible, and able to make decisions alone, when necessary. That’s all good, and comprises a needed contribution to the global mission of God. But this little piece is aimed at helping us see some ways we, as American believers, still think the same way our pagan neighbors do. To use Paul’s language, we won’t be able to discern the will of God – generally or in specific situations – when the way we think is the same as the way the world does. That’s why, in order to not be conformed to this world, we must be transformed by the renewing of our minds, i.e. changing the ways we think. To do that, we have to see the false narratives for what they are. This is the point of Romans 12:1-2.
Here’s another example of the American cultural mind assuming that something is new because we just started attending to it. Doomsday. Zombie apocalypse. End of days. The world we live in is becoming increasingly unstable. We are approaching the zero hour on global catastrophe. How do I know that? Because I read it on the internet, and that’s always reliable, right?
Actually, ever since 9/11, American culture has been coming to grips with the fact that we (humans, from all nations) are vulnerable to loss and plague and war and death. As those things keep popping up, and as the internet and technology continue to expand in their capacity to bring â€œnewsâ€ to us from all over the place, we become more and more convinced that the whole thing really is about to burn down. It reminds me of the Palantir in The Lord of the Rings. The Steward of Gondor had this stone he could see far off with, but the Dark Lord was showing him what he wanted him to see, in order to take away his courage. I wonder sometimes if Satan is doing that, catching the Western church up in a false story in which it’s wisdom now to be afraid, and to order life around the possibility of catastrophe.
Because my friends from other cultures all agree that the world has always been this unstable. We just started noticing.
I am not innocent of this. I wasn’t convinced that Y2K was going to be the end of all things, but I was sure that any reasonable person would agree that something was going to happen. (For those of you too young to remember, Y2K was the Year 2000, when computer dates rolled over and that was supposed to somehow destroy all banking and nuclear power plants and launch global missile arsenals, or something). A guy had come to my college to get some of us to buy gold and prep for the sure and certain outcome of global destruction. His arguments were convincing, but I could feel then what I still feel now, though I couldn’t describe it then. I knew, in my bones, that I could not follow Jesus and follow this man’s fear at the same time.
Yeah, nothing happened.
But it didn’t stop me from being pretty sure that there would be global collapse of the dollar in 2012. That didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean it won’t, nor that it’s not wise to buy silver or hard assets, but I did start recalling, right about then, how my grandmother’s generation had been certain the Lord would appear in their lifetime. And then I recalled all the church services I was in growing up, carefully laying out dates and stuff about Israel and demonstrating with no room for doubt that they would see the Lord’s return. They have all since passed away. I am beginning to wonder if there is something about middle age that makes us think that since we’re reaching our expiration date in a few decades, the whole world will, too.
More recent examples of my American propensity to read cosmic significance into anything I notice: I was sure ISIS would be about 4 times bigger than it is by now, and that Ebola would have covered the globe by now, as well. When they first hit the news a couple years ago, the apocalyptic tone in the stories – which made us all watch them over and over – spoke to the adolescent cultural mind in me, and made me afraid. I called it wisdom, but it was fear.
It’s funny, I was reading about the plague of 540 AD this morning. Well, the plague wasn’t funny. It’s funny how we read facts as omens (and even those facts are skewed), convinced that the world we’re seeing is the worst it’s been. In 540 AD plague broke out in Pelusium in Egypt. In less than two years it reached the heart of the Roman empire in Constantinople, killing as many as 10,000 people a day. Ebola hasn’t done that. Carried, we know now, by fleas, it spread all over the known world, killing noble and commoner alike. All the recognized boundaries erected against loss and suffering were moot. It reached Britain and Ireland (places the empire itself could not conquer) in by 548, and spread inland from the ports. Even the sea, which had stymied mighty Rome, was no match for Black Death. People everywhere fled their farms, leaving crops rotting in the fields. Whole swaths of empire became little more than ghost towns. Apocalyptic, one might say. End of days.
But it wasn’t.
Furthermore, the Kingdom of God kept coming.
There is no media that can be trusted to teach us the story of the world. Liberal media has an agenda. Conservative media has an agenda. By the way, they are the same. To make money, and to put their people in power so they all can have more money and power.
The underground alternative media, in all its quirky forms, has an agenda. Money. Yep. Their job is to tell you how the other media is all playing a tune, and and to make you feel in the know, so you’ll keep coming back to their site and they can sell more ad time. All media in any culture has one job, to tell the multifaceted narrative of that culture’s values. It’s all the same story, different threads, and it’s not the real story of the world.
In the real story, the world is broken and chaotic. Bad stuff happens. And sometimes even to us. Bombs go off, diseases erupt, hurricanes blow and markets crash. But in Jesus, and in Jesus’s students, God is healing the whole world, making all things new, and undoing the darkness. Our job is not to survive the chaos, but to love the world through it.
As we are loved through it.
It was in a very, very unstable time. In a moment of considerable scarcity, when his audience was not in a position of power or security, that Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, it’s your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
I find a propensity in me to read Jesus’s commands in Matthew 5-7 and Luke 12 and imagine those apply to secure Sunday School environments, where we’re all eating knock-off Oreos and drinking too much watered-down KoolAid. But in real life, given all this instability, it’s only wise to take lots of precautions. But I am convinced now that if Jesus were to pop in and give a speech right now about “how things are getting these days” or about disease or chaos or loss or any of the bogeymen of our cultural narrative, he’d just repeat Matthew 6 and Luke 12. He would tell us not to make any decisions from the fear in our guts. In fact, that fear in our guts is the lie.
I want to get to Jesus’s teachings on this in moment, because we’re almost ready for them. The contrast is almost clear. But first, let me draw your attention the recent relentless flooding in Houston, Texas. Or the Nashlantis flood in Nashville a few years ago. Or hurricane Katrina a few years before that. Let’s think for a moment: how many doomsday stashes in how many basements were lost in those floods? How many people put a lot of hope in their wisdom, just to have it washed away long before their date with global collapse? It wasn’t even doomsday and they lost their stuff.
I am pretty strong and have some martial arts training. So, let’s say I want to take your hoard. What are you gonna do about it?
“I have a gun,” you say. How about I just take that away from you, because I am trained and you are not. Where did that gun get you?
Worse than the obvious outcome, in the years before I took away your gun, how much sacrifice/redemption story have you not lived, while you’ve been busy living a survival story? Because you can’t live both. Jesus made that clear. You have to hate your life, deny your self and its survival, if you even want to start as his student.
But let’s say your stash is up on a hill (no floods) and you’re better armed and trained than me, and maybe you even have friends up there with you. You manage to hold back the horde from your hoard (both ugly words). What did that get you?
Did you know, you’re still going to die? You’ll fall off a log, or get sick, or just age out. You will have ordered your whole life, or at least your internal narrative that colors and informs your whole life, around the one thing you can be sure you can’t have – survival. You. are gonna. die.
So, Jesus says, “Listen when I say, What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
Jesus says, “Those of you who order your lives around keeping your lives will lose them. But those of you who lose your lives will find them.” There are two categories here, and they don’t overlap. You cannot make life decisions in both directions simultaneously.
Now, lest you write me off and put me in a camp with dumb lazy people who live soft and silly lives, I have a GOBag. We keep weeks of food in our pantry. There’s a 72hr kit in my car. We keep the car above half a tank. Why? Because bad stuff already happens here. Put another way, we have identified a minimum preparedness helpful to serve a world without living that world’s story. In the world, not of it. We frequently lose water. The city is due for a big earthquake. Politics are a little wonky here.
So this is not an article telling you to be lazy. Or a pacifist, necessarily. When Jesus was about to be taken by the authorities, he asked his 12 men, “How many swords do you have?” When they said that among them they had 2 large knives, he didn’t chide them or rebuke them for having them (classic pacificism). He also didn’t say, “You each need a sword and a bow, and you need a month of MREs in a cave in Engeddi” (survivalism). He said, 2 little swords among 12 men against the best trained armies in a thousand miles would be enough.
I’m not advocating un-readiness. I’m insisting that the American fascination with avoiding pain and death, and our rush to create solutions to what we perceive as problems might have told us a story that feels true, but isn’t.
Jesus told us the true Story. He didn’t say, “Hoard and you’ll have enough. Keep and you’ll find. Lock and the door will stay closed against your hungry neighbor.”
He said ask, and you’ll receive. In his story, God is not watching the world slowly wind down into entropy. God is a good Father, who gives to his children when they ask. He simply does not give us a snake when we ask for lunch. In Jesus’s story of the world, we are commanded not to give much thought at all to what we’ll eat (or what our kids will eat … remember, in this story He’s a Father, too), or how we will keep the elements off us. Why? Two reasons. God already knows and has a plan for how he will provide for us. He already prepped. Second, ordering our lives around mitigating scarcity and chaos, trying to be sure we’ll have enough, reading the tea leaves (via the internet, even) and letting that spirit of fear live in usâ€¦.Jesus says that’s the hallmark of your pagan neighbors. These are the things the nations seek.
In Jesus’s story it’s irresponsible to lay up stashes for yourself on earth, because of moths and thieves and floods and hurricanes and such. It’s a sure loss. You can order life that way.
You can order your life another way, storing up treasure in the other dimension, where floods and moths and well-trained wanna-be soldiers can’t reach or steal it away. “Wisdom” says to seek first the basic needs of your family, and then the kingdom of God. Jesus says seek first the reign of God, and he will take care of your family. Is that scary sometimes? Yes. But his success rate is much better than yours, and his rifle never misfires.
This might seem overly simplistic to you. It seemed that way to me. I felt caught, for a while, between what I thought the Proverbs taught and what I clearly heard Jesus saying. But I discovered recently that’s a false pair. It’s not Solomon vs. Jesus. The true pair is Proverbs vs. Ecclesiastes. In Proverbs we learn to work hard like the ant because lean days are ahead. In Ecclesiastes we learn, it won’t much matter because we will all die anyway; may as well live first. Even that’s not a versus-pairing, though. Both are true. And I found myself pinned between those two views.
It’s into that paralyzed thinking that Jesus speaks to me, not to answer all the particulars, but to tell me that the Kingdom of God is at hand, whatever else may be happening, and to invite me to live THAT story. Not in addition to my “stay alive, free and happy” story, but instead of it.
Look, I like seeing my gas gauge full. There’s a good feeling you get when you open a well-stocked fridge. When all the pipes here freeze, and it only throws us off a little because we keep hundreds of liters of water in the garage, it definitely feels better than not being able to bathe. But two swords is enough. There is a real difference between being boy scout ready, and making real life decisions for our families driven by the events of empires that have always been rising and falling. It’s not new.
I like how I feel when I take my supplements and when I eat all the veggies Joy cooks. I like the sense of self-control when I just don’t buy the sugary drink. But even if these choices stave off some disease, in the grand scheme of the story of the whole world, short lives and long lives are both short. If I play the avoid-dying game I do two things: I waste the fact that Jesus already set me free from the fear of dying (according to Hebrews), and I play a game we all know I can’t possibly win.
You cannot choose if the world will get crazy, or if you will get sick. You can take some steps. But understand that if you begin to live a story that’s all about not getting sick, or not being caught unprepared, you’ve lost the plot, and you’ve lost a primary means of grace.
Just after the “Do not lay up treasures on earth … for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” part Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If the eye is single, your whole body will be full of light. But if the eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
When my eye is on what we’ll eat or drink, or how we’ll stay warm, then Jesus says I can’t trust my sight. I am not in a good space to make decisions as his student – as a citizen of the Permanent Kingdom.
I wonder, with assessment and not harsh judgement, if American believers are often in just that state. We are supposed to be the Society within our societies that lives a different story, sings a different song. But instead, I wonder now and again if the blind are leading the blind, who are leading the blindfolded – all into a ditch.
You have attention enough for one Story. You can either pay attention to the story of empires falling and bodies giving out, or to the Story of the kingdom of God. All these kingdoms must be shaken, while “we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken.”
My encouragement to you is not to be afraid. Is the world breaking? Yes, but maybe not faster than ever it was. And even if so, the kingdom you inhabit cannot be shaken.
I encourage you, in the name of Jesus, to fear not, little sheep, because your Father is good, and strong, and told Jesus to tell you to let him see to your survival. This is a major way we can live the gospel before our neighbors.
I encourage you, in the name of Jesus, not to be led by the external vicissitudes of empires that come and go, but by the Spirit who has sealed you and empowered you to heal a world, not to survive it.
I encourage you, on behalf of Jesus, not to seek to keep your life, but to seek to lose it, and to live your life exposed and vulnerable. Because you will surely die, as will your children and their children after them. But until you die, you can choose to live, free of the false stories of your culture, free to run in the Story Jesus tells, and you can teach your children that story, only if you live it. You can either fear, or you can love. Choose love.
I encourage you to sit down this week with Matthew 6 and Luke 12, and to ask Jesus to help your heart hear his kind shepherd voice, and make the truth set you free.
I’ll leave you with a poem by Dawna Markova:
I will not die an unlived life,
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise …