Every day matters. This is the very simple message of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God and to live one’s life to the glory of God. You don’t need to be “missional.” You don’t even need to be “radical” (especially since radical commonly means “very different from the norm”).
In fact, the Bible does not encourage superlative adjectives to describe following Christ at all. Adjectival superlatives tend to create new forms of legalism whereby the work and person of Christ is no longer sufficient to be in right relationship with God. The norm is not enough. Although those promoting various adjectives have no intention of doing harm, hearers often embrace the adjective as the basis of genuine faith instead of the language of Scripture.
Young Christian adults are torn in a sea of modern adjectives that tend to become shame-filled and often debilitating burdens. Larry Osborne warns about five tribal communities that may be accidentally doing harm: (1) “Radical” Christians, (2) “Crazy” Christians, (3) “Missional” Christians, (4) “Gospel-Centered” Christians and (5) Revolutionary and Organic Christians. According to Osborne, each of these tribes has inadvertently created accidental pharisaism because if one does not live out one’s Christian life according to the norms and codes of their respective tribe one will be looked down upon. Moreover, for those within each tribe, it leaves them vulnerable to the arrogant narcissism that believes “our” tribe gets Christianity “right” while the others are substandard.
Man’s nature is to reject it, because it can only be thrust on people by force. The most fallen possession is closer to God’s design for man than malicious egalitarianism. Possession is what God gave me (which I usually (mis)use selfishly and sinfully), whereas equality is what government and society give me, and they give me something that does not belong to them. (The desire for) Equality is from the Devil because it comes entirely from envy.
– Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983, page 330-331.
(HT: AOI Observer)
Many thanks to Ancient Faith Radio for graciously sharing its podcasts of the Conference on Poverty at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. The May 31-June 1 event was co-hosted by the Acton Institute. The conference was offered as a tribute to Deacon John Zarras, a 2006 alumnus of the seminary who earned his M.Div. degree over a period of several years as a late–vocations student. Deacon John, who fell asleep in the Lord last year, also served as a member of the Board of Trustees and the president of the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Foundation.
What follows are four separate audio feeds, including Q&A follow up, from the Poverty Conference. Ancient Faith is broadcasting these as part of its regular podcasts by the Very Rev. Dr. Chad Hatfield, Chancellor of St. Vladimir’s. But first listen to Fr. Chad’s May 24 broadcast, in which he addresses negative reaction to Acton’s participation in the conference by some associated with the seminary. He reminds listeners that Acton, on the issue of poverty, can provide a fresh and different approach that’s effective.
From Ancient Faith: (more…)
Over at Think Christian today, I lend some broader perspective concerning the link between money and happiness occasioned by a piece on The Atlantic on some research that challenged some of the accepted scholarly wisdom on the subject.
The Bible is our best resource for getting the connection between material and spiritual goods right. I conclude in the TC piece, “As Jesus put it, ‘life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.’” Or to put it another way, we live on bread but not bread alone.
And so money is a good, but not a terminal good. It isn’t an end in itself, but rather is a means to pursuing other good ends. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches us, for example, that we work “faithfully” so that we might “share with those in need.”
Another piece just out today argues that money, when used rightly, can be a means to make us happy. But significantly, the findings of Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton show that such uses of money often correspond to ways not motivated directly by our own pursuit of happiness. Thus, among the “five key principles” they find that helps “turn cash into contentment” is one that resonates directly with the wisdom of the catechism noted above: “Invest in Others.” This means recognizing that “spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves.”
Check out the work of Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton in their new book, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.
Augustine observes that humans are constituted in large part by their sociality. As he puts it in the City of God, “For there is nothing so social by nature as this race, no matter how discordant it has become through its fault.”
I have written that a corollary of the natural law is a vision of society as one based on mutual aid. This includes economic exchange as well as the economy of gifts and the corresponding gratitude, as I have highlighted this week.
But this orientation towards others can take a negative turn. As I noted yesterday, Augustine describes a corrupted kind of “spiteful benevolence.”
C.S. Lewis explores this as well in his description of the person who must always be giving to the point of fostering dependency, foisting oneself upon others, and even creating the need for intervention if necessary. This “unselfish” giving of oneself to others can turn into the most depraved kind of selfishness.
As Wormwood relates a description of such a person in The Screwtape Letters, “She’s the sort of woman who lives for others–you can always tell the others by their hunted expression.”
This kind of need to be needed is of course a corruption of love. By contrast, the true expression of love is exemplified in no more glorious a fashion than the truly other-directed self-giving of a mother.
This is something to remember and celebrate this Mother’s Day.
Yesterday in conjunction with this week’s Acton Commentary I looked at Tim Riggins’ gift of freedom to his brother and the corresponding sense of responsibility that resulted. When Tim takes the rap for Billy, Billy has a responsibility to make something of his life. As Tim puts it, that’s the “deal.”
When Tim feels that Billy hasn’t lived up to his end, it causes conflict. Tim’s gift has created an obligation for the recipient. This reality is on clearest display in this exchange between the two brothers:
Billy: “How long are you going to hold it over my head, man?”
Tim: “The rest of my life if I feel it needs to be.”
This hints at the shadow-side of much of our gift-giving as human beings, as this good thing can be turned into a way of manipulating, controlling, or holding “it over” someone.
Consider these words about Augustine and their implications for the kinds of gift-giving that we ought to pursue:
A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about. If such a thing as spiteful benevolence existed (which is impossible, of course, but supposing it did), a genuinely and sincerely merciful person would wish others to be miserable so that he could show them mercy!
The “spiteful benevolence” that drives much gift giving is actually intended to keep the recipient in a state of dependence, in a relationship that gives power to the giver which can be lorded over others. This, I think, is actually one of the key dynamics of much of the modern international aid movement. Aid can become a tool of a kind of neo-colonial policy.
It is this debased and corrupted form of gift-giving that has led so many to the extreme position which argues that true gifts require no response and inspire no responsibility. But as I argue this week, this abuse of the reality of gift is no argument against its proper use: “The connection between gift and gratitude invigorates a life of stewardship and responsibility.”
In this week’s Acton Commentary, I explore the dynamics between gift, gratitude, and stewardship. The proper response to a gift that has been given is gratitude, and the proper expression of gratitude comes in faithful stewardship.
I’ve heard it repeated in many times and in many places that for a gift to truly be a gift, there must be no responsibility of response on the part of the recipient. As I write in “Gift, Gratitude, and the Grace of Stewardship,” that view is precisely what Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against in his excoriation of “cheap” grace.
One of the most striking illustrations to me of this dynamic came as I watched the TV series Friday Night Lights. One of the main characters is Tim Riggins, a fan favorite who begins the series as a student and ends it as a man. Over the last two seasons Tim’s maturation really comes through, as he has graduated from high school and is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
Tim’s got a troubled background that doesn’t need to be explained here, but suffice it to say that the only family he’s got is his older brother Billy. Despite his better judgment and discomfort with the idea, Billy convinces Tim to help him with his new garage, which by night becomes a chop shop operation. The brothers are eventually busted, but Tim generously and lovingly takes the rap for his brother, who has a new wife and child that he’s trying to support.
After some time, Tim is paroled and comes back to Dillon, Texas. As you might imagine, Tim isn’t the happiest guy around after his stint in jail. But what really angers him is his sense that his brother Billy hasn’t done enough with the gift of freedom he’s been given by his brother’s sacrifice. After the brothers fight, Billy asks, “How long are you going to hold it over my head, man?” Tim responds, “The rest of my life if I feel it needs to be.”
Tim has given Billy a great gift, and it’s clear that Billy feels a sense of responsibility. Tim recognizes it, too, which is why they both know that there is something, some obligation, to be “held over” Billy. That doesn’t make what Tim did any less of a gift. But it does illustrate that there is a deep connection between gift and gratitude, or what Bonhoeffer called “costly grace.”
Tim’s sacrifice, in this way, is an echo of the great sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, who showed the greatest love there is in laying down his life for us (John 15:13). The reality of this gift of costly grace ought to inspire in us a sense of gratitude and responsibility, to do something good with the freedom we’ve been given in Christ.
A few days ago on Facebook and Twitter I made the following observation:
Being a “radical,” “missional,” Christian is slowly becoming the “new legalism.” We need more ordinary God and people lovers (Matt 22:36-40).
This observation was the result of a long conversation with a student who was wrestling with what to do with his life given all of the opportunities he had available to him. To my surprise, my comment exploded over the internet with dozens and dozens of people sharing the comment and sending me personal correspondence.
I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.
Here are a few thoughts on how we got here:
We’ve almost all seen some of the creepy messianic videos associated with President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. If you’re in need of a refresher there are examples here and here. It isn’t solely a problem of the political left though. Throughout history there has been varying belief in political saviors of different ideologies. There are many on the right who firmly believe that political changes alone will transform our culture and institutions.
However, as government dependency continues to grow to record levels, we are reaching new heights in state worship and adoration. I wrote more about this topic in “As Secularism Advances, Political Messianism Draws More Believers,” a commentary I published last year.
Currently, I am reading Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became our State Religion by Benjamin Wiker. The book offers some good insights on the assaults on religious liberty, increased secularism, and political messiahs. Here’s an excerpt from his new book:
Modern political utopianism, as we shall see, is an attempt to discard the necessity of grace (and hence of the church), even while state power replaces grace as the instrument for perfecting man. Liberalism is more than the rejection of Christianity; it is the absorption and transformation of its doctrines. Before the Christian doctrine of grace, no one would have dared think about perfecting the whole human race–a few, select individuals, a small group or clan or class of society, yes, but not the whole human race. With Christianity, God’s grace is indeed open to all, and so all may share in the perfection of holiness, but this offered grace takes full effect only in the Kingdom of God, that is, only in heaven. Liberalism takes the church’s salvific mission and makes it a merely political goal, one to be achieved in this world by human power alone, a heaven brought down by force to earth, where we become the authors of our own salvation.
And finally, here is a look at the somewhat comical yet sad end result of state and leader worship in North Korea: