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Man was not made for Time, but time for man?

In Christ and Culture, Time, Worldview on October 23, 2015 at 9:04 pm

Understanding Worldview (2)

Time is moneyWhat can you spend, save and waste?

I asked my students this question and the answer is about 50/50–money and time. You’d expect people to say money, because that’s the right answer.  In what way is time anything like money?   They are not alike at all, but we use exactly the same verbs to describe what we do with them.  You don’t spin a banana, or peal a yarn. You don’t run with petunias and plant scissors.  Yet some how we’ve managed to manage time as if it were something like money.

Richard Lewis explains in “How Different Cultures Understand Time“:

For an American, time is truly money. In a profit-oriented society, time is a precious, even scarce, commodity. It flows fast, like a mountain river in the spring, and if you want to benefit from its passing, you have to move fast with it. Americans are people of action; they cannot bear to be idle.

This view of time is by no means universal.  At a social gathering a few years ago, a Cameroonian man said to my wife , “You people . . . ” (By this he, of course, meant you Americans.) “You people have such a strange way of thinking about time. You think of it as something you can grasp, something you can hold in your hand.”

For North Americans and most northern Europeans, time is linear.  It’s a line, a time line, with evenly spaced hash marks designating the minutes and hours, days and years. This line extends into both the past and the future and in the middle is a point called the present. The line of time continuously slides at a constant speed through the present from right to left. On the future side of the present we affix plans and promises–commitments to others and to ourselves as to what we will do by particular points on the time line.   In our culture, we focus a lot on the future–in both hope and fear.

I can’t pretend to know anything firsthand about what is called “Africa time,” but one of the pastors at my church was born and raised in Kenya.  He tells me that in Africa people aren’t governed by the clock, rather they take the view that “things will happen when they happen.”  I told him via email that I would give him a call at about 3:00–I called him at exactly 3:00.  In Africa, he says, “In Africa, I would be crazy to expect the call at 3:00, because 3:00 really means ‘sometime in the afternoon,'” and it is not a surprise if the call didn’t come in at all.  That’s OK, because “tomorrow is another day.”

Why this seemingly irresponsible for keeping appointments and living up to agreements?

It’s all about relationships.  In African culture almost everything is about relationships.  My pastor explained, “If I were on my way somewhere and I encountered my friend Trent, I would stop and have a conversation.”   A present conversation is too important to cut off before it’s naturally concluded–until then, there is not other place to be.  African time bends and stretches according to the present relational needs. It matters not what a clock might say.  Africa is a big continent and it’s got many different cultural groups, so generalizations are dangerous, but there is apparently some commonality in how time is conceived–and not only in Africa,  but in Latin America as well.

Looking at it another way, in our culture we consider an event to be a component of time whereas other cultures often consider time to be a component of the event.

Interestingly, in our culture we suffer from boredom, if we have too much time, and stress, if we have too little.  I asked my friend if, in the absence of mechanical time, if Africans experience boredom and stress.  He said that an African person will be bored if they are alone, and experience stress when there is a brokenness in their community.  Again, it comes down to the primacy of relationships.

I’m not sure if the African conception of time is morally superior to mechanical time, but I think, with its focus on relationships, that it might be.  But we have to admit that there are also many advantages to our Western notion of time; I love the timeliness by which German trains operate.

My point is that when it comes to conceptions of time, whether Christian or not, residents of Northern Europe and North America have a “secular” view of time. We should, therefore, be hesitant to claim that we have a “Christian” or a “Biblical” worldview–because in our understanding of time, we do not.  We have a pretty “secular” worldview.

The Godless French?

In Christ and Culture, Worldview on September 8, 2015 at 12:35 am

I recently heard a pastor refer to France as a spiritual wasteland, and this wasn’t the first time I had heard this.

Twenty-one of our students went to France this past spring break and I asked them if they found this to be true. They agreed that French culture is very secular. Very few people in France go to church, and they don’t really talk, or even think, about God. They have beautiful churches, but the students observed large gift shops in two of the most beautiful churches they visited, Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur.

But, they also saw evidence that perhaps the French aren’t as spiritually dry as we might think, and that they are, in some ways, expressing some aspects of honouring the Creator better than we do.

The most obvious example for the students was the French approach to food. The French value food, so when they eat, they take their time. A meal is not a mere biological necessity between work and an evening Bible study. The meal is one of the most important events of the day. The students said, “Even the fast food is slow.”

And meals aren’t just about the food. They are very much about the conversation that takes place over the meal. The French enjoy nothing more than great food with good friends. Here, restaurants try to maximize the number of seatings in an evening by carefully moving diners from the appetizer to the bill as quickly as possible without them feeling rushed. In France, you and your friends are expected to enjoy each other’s company for hours. If you want a bill, you have to ask for it.

Rather than serving groceries in the same store that also sells underwear and motor oil (Walmart, Target, etc.), the French have rows of small, independently owned specialty stores. Each only sells one thing–cheese, meat, pastry, bread, fish, vegetables. The idea is that if you specialize, you can better ensure the quality of your wares, and the resultant meals will be a lot more enjoyable.

Very early, the Bible establishes humanity’s three key relationships: with God, with others, and with Creation. The French do very little to nurture the first, hence the appellation “godless,” but, at least in their approach to meals, they do really well with the second two. They take the good gifts of God and treat them as the treasures they are.

Our culture conceived of Kraft Dinner which sells for $1.27 a box and takes less than 10 minutes to make and even less to consume even if we include the time it takes to offer a prayer acknowledging God’s gustatory providence.

This post was previously published at http://insideout.abbotsfordchristian.com/

Commercial Calendar is Changing Our Identity

In Christ and Culture on November 29, 2014 at 8:17 pm

CalendarIt’s the first Sunday of Advent and I hope we are going to light the candles again this year. There is something cool about doing something that has its origins in the Middle Ages. I recently re-read Desiring the Kingdom by Calvin philosophy professor, James K. A. Smith. In it he says that rituals are very important because they shape who we are. For some reason repetition affects us very deeply–on the level of our identity.

Advent is the beginning of the church calendar. It is a time of expectation. It commemorates the hope that God’s people had for the Messiah, but it also reminds us that we, too, are waiting for Jesus. The Advent season reminds us that we are people of expectant waiting–that this world is not all that there is and it’s not as good as it gets. There’s more, much more, in store for us.

Christmas Day, when we celebrate the Incarnation, is our next stop on the church calendar.   It is an incredible thing that the material world was visited by the transcendent God. God has bridged the huge chasm that separates us from himself.

Lent is a time for reflection, repentance, and prayer as a way of preparing our hearts for Easter. This is often accomplished by “giving something up.” The idea here is that some form of deprivation helps us to attend more deeply to the sin in our lives and our need for salvation. A keen awareness of these can make participation in a Good Friday and Easter Sunday services very profound.

These are just the highlights. The traditional church calendar celebrates the Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Assumption, and more. The annual remembrance of these events is a ritual in itself, and these have shaped the people of God for centuries.

How might the rituals surrounding these important events in the church calendar have any formative influence on our identities? According to Smith, rituals aren’t just something we do, they do something to us. When we celebrated these annual events, we understand ourselves as sinners in need of salvation; we know ourselves to wait expectantly for something better, and that this something better is the person of Jesus Christ; and we know that we are beloved. Our “knowledge” of these things is not on a cognitive level, says Smith. It is a knowledge that resides in our bones.

Many Christians don’t really follow the liturgical calendar and are therefore not being shaped by it, but this does not mean they are not being shaped by rituals. There is another calendar that dominates our culture and it, too, is filled with repeated activities–it is the commercial calendar.

The commercial calendar does not begin with waiting, but receiving, immediately. (Well, almost immediately; you usually have to wait till the 25th to get your stuff.) Christmas is the most important shopping season of the commercial calendar. Where the center of the church calendar is God made flesh, the high priest of the commercial Christmas is Santa Claus who models a generosity that, for those of us without a workshop of elves, must be preceded by purchases. Not only do we buy gifts, we buy wrapping paper and bows, ornaments to dress our trees and homes, and enough meat to feed a non-Western family for a year. Out national economy is dependent on these weeks (months) of spending. And the day after we celebrate all our purchases, we go out (in Canada at least) to take advantage of the Boxing Day sales and buy more things.

The next significant event on the commercial calendar is Valentine’s Day. We celebrate romantic love through the purchase of a card, roses, chocolates, and dinner with Champaign.  At Easter, too, we have a list of ritual purchases–if not Easter dresses, then certainly chocolate bunnies and eggs, and, my personal favourites, Peeps. The stores have sales to encourage our consumption on or around each of our national holidays. And in August we engage in the annual ritual of Back-to-School shopping–not just for paper and pencils, but for a new wardrobe as well.  As soon as school starts the Thanksgiving and Halloween related products and sales are advertised, and then we arrive at American Thanksgiving.  This is the holiday where Americans give thanks by fighting over “door crasher” televisions.  This holiday is important to Canadians as well because merchants north of the border must offer Black Thursday Sales to compete with the American rock bottom prices that kick off the commercial Christmas season.

Rituals shape who we are. Which are the more powerful rituals in our culture? The consumer calendar is adding new rituals all the time–Presidents Day Clearance Sale!? The church calendar is down to about two events, and even then most Christians we are engaged in commercial rituals at the same time.

What is a human being? A beloved creature, helpless in sin, but saved by a loving heavenly father? Or a consumer that finds comfort an meaning in consumption? Even if we think (or even believe) it is the former, before long we will know deep in our bones that we are, in fact, the latter. This is the power of ritual.

“Maybe Jesus was a vampire?”

In Christ and Culture on June 20, 2014 at 3:01 am

Vampire JesusAre there vampires in the Bible? A few of the characters on HBO’s True Blood suggest there are. Lazarus, Cain and Eve are presented as possibilities, but then the dim-witted Jason Stackhouse hypothesizes, “Maybe Jesus was the first vampire?” Jason’s evidence for this assertion is that Jesus rose from the dead and he told his followers to drink his blood.

This conversation over a cafeteria lunch wasn’t any deeper than this, but it prompted some of the shows fans to ask the question again here and here.

Silly question? Perhaps, but the answer is far from silly.

Jesus is like Dracula because he could not be contained in the grave. Actually, this comparison doesn’t really work. Although Dracula lived for many centuries, by the end of Bram Stoker’s novel the eponymous anti-hero was dead at the hands of the Crew of Light. On the other hand, Jesus, according to the book of Revelation, is shown to be seated at the right hand of God ruling for all eternity. I suppose Jason’s mistake is understandable given that it’s not likely he’s read either of these books.

Another way Dracula is like Jesus is that they were both thought to be human, but really weren’t. Oh, wait; this isn’t true either. Jesus was fully human. Born like a human, ate and drank like a human, died like a human. Dracula, on the other hand, is not very human at all. He could turn himself into various animals and even smoke. He didn’t come to be like a human, he didn’t eat or drink like a human and he didn’t die like a human.

Then there’s the whole blood thing that Jason brought up. Dracula drinks blood; Jesus doesn’t drink blood. I’m not sure how this is a positive comparison.

This is actually the essential difference between the vampire and Jesus. Jesus gives his innocent blood for the sake of the guilty, the vampire is guilty of taking innocent blood for his own sake. Jesus fills the empty with his blood; Dracula drains the full of their blood. Christ’s giving of his blood is symbolically enacted in the Eucharist, where believers symbolically partake of the blood of Christ. Again, what is rehearsed in this ritual is Christ’s giving his blood for the sake of humanity. When Dracula drinks the blood, usually of a young maiden, he is rejuvenated–it is the secret to his immortality.   As Jesus gives up his blood, he dies. This is the secret to our immortality.

This leads us to another superficial similarity: Once bitten, Dracula’s victims become like him. In the acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice, the true believer becomes more like Christ. But because the vampire is all about the taking of blood, innocence, life, purity, his victims become the same–they take. Jesus is all about the giving of blood, giving life, so the behaviour of the true disciple will be very different–they give. This is one of the marks of a true follower of Christ–the giving.

Importantly, Dracula absorbs the will of his victims. The vampire has the power to mesmerize his victims as they surrender their will and become passively complicit to its attack. The product of Dracula’s blood taking will be creatures whose lives are qualitatively like his own because he has consumed their selfhood, their freedom, their autonomy. Their identity has become vampire–a creature that must take to live. Absorbed and no longer distinct.

Christ, on the other hand, desires a people whose wills are freely conformed to his–united with him, but still distinct. The essential difference between Jesus and vampire is that behind Jesus’ desire is a perfect love and the result of submission to this love is, paradoxically, perfect freedom.

Although he’s not talking about vampires per se, as Lewis’ Screwtape beautifully articulates the vampiric view of the world:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specifically, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even and inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition.’ Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters (C. S. Lewis 92)

The vampire is profoundly selfish and exploitative and will refuse to respect the autonomy of others. They use people to satisfy their own needs and desires.   The way of Christ is the exact opposite; in John 15:12-13 he said:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Legalize Hit Men?

In Christ and Culture, Christian Education on October 24, 2013 at 6:00 am

hitmenI was observing an English class at my school as they read the recent post by Betsy Childs entitled “Why We Should Legalize Murder for Hire.” 

Some were horrified at first at the suggestion that “hit men [could] provide a valuable service to society” by helping women deal with “unwanted marriages,” but they quickly understood they were dealing with satire.  Their appreciation of the author’s wit was evidenced by the readers’ giggles and parenthetic comments.

We don’t find out that the author is actually building a parallel between killing one’s spouse and killing one’s unborn child.

The students commended the cleverness of Childs’ analogy when she says that “matrimony severely curtails a woman’s freedom” and that “the better course is to avoid unwanted marriage in the first place,” and “it is her marriage; only she can decide when it must end” . . .

One student pointed out that Childs correlates  adoption to divorce when she says the latter “may be an attractive alternative to murder” but “some woman do not have the emotional and financial resources to go through a divorce.”

The students’ initial reaction to this article was positive.  

How would you take this if you were pro-choice?

I’d be mad.

It wasn’t very long and one student used the word “fallacy.” 

The students continued to ask each other questions:

Stacked evidence?

Not quite.

Faulty analogy? 

Yeah, that fits.

(Faulty analogy: an argument is based on misleading, superficial, or implausible comparisons.)

The students suggested that someone who was pro-choice would not accept the premise that the fetus was comparable to a husband, so this argument is only effective if someone accepts that premise.  They concluded that if your audience was pro-life, Childs’ argument was effective, but if it was pro-choice the argument would be ineffective.

Who is the audience?

Since this article was posted on The Gospel Coalition website, one can assume that the audience was conservative to moderate Christians.  The effect of the article was to reinforce the views of the audience.  In other words, it was preaching to the choir.  

What’s the point of writing this if your audience already agrees?

It was observed that the only effect of the article was to reinforce the view of those who agree that our society “celebrates [the murder of] family members”.  Several students pointed out that this, in itself, is not wrong, but because the tone was mocking this article  would simultaneously alienate opponents and enflame the passions of supporters.

Was this the purpose of the article?

If you get the two sides all riled up you can’t get anywhere.

How can Christians write about this issue that promotes dialogue?

Christian Modernism? Modern Christianism?

In Christ and Culture, False Dichotomies - the lines between on October 9, 2013 at 5:08 am

UntitledWe just can’t escape the modern worldview.  The term “worldview” is itself a product of the modern worldview.

The modern worldview sees the world in terms of clear boundaries between categories.  Well, one of the most cherished categorical distinctions is between subject and object.  Implicit in the term worldview is the division between the object, the world, and the subject, the viewer.

But it all evens out because a person who deliberately rejects the Christian worldview can’t escape it either.

Those who claim they have a secular-modern worldview, don’t really.  Their understanding of the world and themselves is unavoidably infused with the Judeo-Christian worldview out of which it grew.  The concept of “secular” is itself rooted in the Judeo-Christian past.  A linear understanding of history, the importance of human rights and freedoms to name a few more.  Science flourished in the west because the universe was understood to be ordered–“In the beginning was the Logos.  Ordered means predictable and this is the basis of the scientific method.

These are just a few of many examples where the modern “secular” worldview is not truly secular.  If it were it would look far different.

Just as the secular worldview isn’t purely secular, the so called “Christian worldview” of our day has been influence by modern secular ideas.

First, there are many Christians that accept the modern reductionist understanding of “truth.”  They are trapped within this syllogism: Truth is rational and empirical; The Bible is true; therefore, the Bible is rational and empirical.  At a popular level, this idea leads to two common errors: that the Bible is true like an encyclopedia is  true, or that it’s not true at all.  Since this reductionist view of truth is so recent and so limited, it is neither appropriate nor useful to hold the Bible to this narrow understanding of truth.

Another way the modern worldview has infiltrated our churches is the valuing of reason over emotion.  This is the one I need to own up to.  I like the rational bits of the worship service–the sermon–far more than the more emotional components–the singing.  And you notice that even by classifying the elements of the church service as emotional and rational I am being very modern.

Third, we have a tendency to be individualistic and we put more emphasis on the individual autonomy than in preceding centuries.  We speak of having a “personal relationship with Jesus” and we sing songs like “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  OK, we don’t sing that song anymore, but we sing a lot of songs that are essentially personal reflections.  There is, obviously, an important personal or individual dimension to Christian faith, but modernism has lead us to put an unbalanced emphasis on the importance of the individual.

Modernism considers faith a private affair that ought to be kept out of the public arena.  Some in the church find it handy to live within this false dichotomy.  In these cases, one’s public life has nothing to do with one’s religious life.  This makes it possible to not claim some income on your tax forms, or to underpay employees, or cheat customers, or pollute the environment, or fail to adequately tip servers in restaurants, etc.  These behaviors do not really touch upon one’s conscience because “business is business.”  In other words, the demands of the Bible are separated from one’s public activity.

A related dichotomy, equally false, divides the world into sacred and secular spheres.  There are many examples of this kind of thinking.   When I was a teenager, there was much debate as to whether or not Christian young people ought to listen to “secular” music.  For many it was clear that Christians ought not do so, and no consideration was given to whether or not the “Christian” music was true, or even good.  Some Christian schools are based on the sacred/secular dichotomy.  The problem with the idea of the secular, as we understand it today, is it suggests there are areas of creation over which Jesus is not Lord.  This idea is completely incompatible with scripture.

 It is no easy thing, purging modernism from our minds and if we could ever completely succeed in doing so, we’d then have to purge our minds of post-modernism.  I really don’t believe we can ever avoid being a product of our times.  But reading the Bible helps a lot.  It also helps a great deal to read history and non-western literature–the Bible nicely fits into these categories as well.  These help us to provide a context for the idolatrous worldviews out of which we live.

 

The Story of Human Rights

In Christ and Culture on October 2, 2013 at 1:05 am

Secular freedom storyWhile driving to one lecture, I was listening to another.  The one I was listening to was delivered by A. C. Grayling on CBC’s Ideas. This was the first of eight “Fragile Freedoms” lectures held at the not yet officially opened Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg (listen here).

This is an excellent lecture. It’s clear, unified, thorough and entertaining, but in his historical survey of the development of the idea of rights, Grayling begins in the wrong place.

His story beings in the 16th century. It goes like this: In the Reformation, humanity took its first step toward the freedoms that culminated in the Enlightenment and were embodied in the documents of the French and American Revolutions. Martin Luther and the other reformers freed people from the hegemony of the church by giving them direct and individual access to God without the mediation of the church. This freedom Grayling calls “liberty of conscience” and it began an “inevitable “process leading to “liberty of thought” and then “liberty of action.” These liberties led to the freedom to ask all sort of questions, first, of the natural world, which led to the scientific revolution, and then, of the social and political systems, which resulted in the revolutions in France and America.

Grayling is telling the Modern Story, the dominant story in our culture. It is a story of, among other things, the quest for individual human autonomy. Because Grayling’s story of the idea of human rights is rooted in the story of the human quest for autonomy, he starts at the point where the this quest began, 1517.

It is generally agreed upon that human freedoms and rights are a good thing. And we all like to take credit for good things. The Soviets claimed credit for the invention of the telephone, the Dutch for the sinking of the Spanish Armada and the Americans for the invention of basketball. So too, the Moderns claim credit for human rights and freedoms, and they do this by linking human rights to the modern quest for autonomy.

But the idea of human rights is not, in the first place, rooted in autonomy but rather in the idea of human worth. And this idea has a much more ancient origin.

Why should we respect the rights and freedoms of other people?

 

Because they must be free to be human or BECAUSE they are human they ought to be free?

 

Genesis 1:27 says, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The Biblical story says that human beings–male and female–were created with inherent value.

It is likely we are not all that impressed at such a declaration. We have heard them, literally for millennia. (And this is sort of my point; we’ve heard them so long, we were bound to listen to them at some point.) But how would they would have sounded like in the ancient world–ridiculous, preposterous?

The cultures that dominated the ancient near east, Early Babylonian and Egyptian, revolved around a priest-king, who represented the gods and as such, needed to be treated like one. This idea was reinforced in the creation myths where humanity was created for the soul purpose of serving the Gods. The myth upheld the socio-political reality of the culture–inferior people are meant to serve the superior representative of the divine.  Imagine the how scandalous the idea that mankind–both male AND FEMALE–itself was the image, read “replacement for the idol.”  This idea was immediately reinforced in the next chapter (2:20) when we see Adam naming things, an activity carried out by the gods in the stories of other cultures.

The idea that human beings were not existential equivalent to the muck on the god’s celestial shoes would have been unthinkable, yet it is this radical idea of human value that undergirds the entire Bible.  Jesus summarizes the law and the prophets, which amounts to pretty much the entire Old Testament, saying love God more than anything and “your neighbour as yourself.” Further, the central event in the Bible, Christians would say in human history, is the son of God giving up his life for the world and its people.  And the reason consistently given for this sacrifice is God’s love for people.

This is a very high view of humanity, indeed.

And it is this understanding of humanity, which comes directly out of our Judeo-Christian heritage, which is the foundation of human rights. The events of the 16th century and following amount to a discovery of what faithful readers of scripture had been saying all along.

A. C. Grayling is telling the Modern Story, a story which is based and draws upon the Judeo-Christian worldview.  I hope that the new Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg will give more credit to the ultimate source of human rights as it strives to fulfill its worthy task “to explore the subject of human rights in order to enhance the publics understanding of human rights, and encourage reflection and dialogue.”

Is God an Environmentalist?

In Christ and Culture, Rants, Worldview on July 13, 2013 at 9:38 pm

EnvironmentalismAt school, I occasionally I find an empty pop can in the garbage.  This is particularly distressing to me when there is a recycle bin right next to the garbage can.  This leads to an inevitable rant, albeit brief, on the importance of recycling.  Following one such outburst, that moved quickly from beverage containers to SUVs, a student asked, “Why recycle if God is going to destroy  this world and then make ‘all things new?'”

“Because he’s not,” I said.   

In Genesis 1, God declares creation to be “good” six times and on the final day, it’s “very good.”   The created goodness of the world is a consistent theme in the Bible– “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24). 

God creates this beautiful and wonderful creation.  He loves it.

 

This is why Satan deliberately sets out to ruin it.

 In Paradise Lost he says,

To do ought good never will be our task,

But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]

As being the contrary to his high will

Whom we resist. (159-162)

Because God loves it, Satan delights in its destruction.

So let’s be clear–there is a force in the universe that loves the created world that wants to see it flourish, and another force bent on destroying it.   God is not going to destroy this world–to do that, he’d be joining the other team.

God’s love for creation as declared in the beginning, is consistent with what is presented in the end. 

In Revelation 21 John describes the vision given him by Jesus at the end of time.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’ (Revelation 21: 2-3)

The end, fits the beginning.  Because he loves this world, he is pleased to come live in it.  Heaven–God’s very presence–comes down.  He comes down to where we are, to be with us.  In His creation.  This was his intention for the Creation, and it how it will be in the end.  Or, more accurately, at the new beginning.

God says in Revelation 21:5, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  Darrel Johnson points out that God does not say, “Behold, I am making all new things,” but “all things new.”  God is not destroying the earth, but restoring it.

So what do we do in the mean time?  The task of humanity is to live in accordance with his purposes.  Notice again, Revelation 21:5.  It doesn’t say, I will make all things new.  It’s “I am making all things new.” 

How is God making all things new?  It began with Christ’s death and resurrection–he died, not just to redeem people, but all of creation.  Colosians 1:19-20 says, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Christ’s work continues through his people, the church, until he comes again.

There are two forces at work in the world–one that would destroy the creation and one that would see it flourish.

So, those who wish to live and work in accordance with God’s purposes will start by taking recycling very seriously. 

And that will be just the beginning. 

Your Money or Grace: You can’t have Both

In Christ and Culture, Rants on December 22, 2012 at 2:45 am

Untitled pictureOver two million people “liked” this picture on Facebook.

Shockingly, the person that “shared” it was a Christian.

I felt a rant coming on.

“Taxed to the ‘breaking point’? Come on!” I desperately wanted to point out that the United States has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. If our taxation levels are at the breaking point, I hope I’m on vacation when some actual hardship comes to North America.

I wanted to ask, “Who is this person who is ‘able to work, but refuses to work’?” Even if this described EVERY person on government assistance it would make up a small portion of the tax dollars collected.

It took a great deal of restraint, but I didn’t reply to this post.

Still, it’s been bugging me for months and then I re-read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Greenleaf.” Here she not only describes the exact sentiment expressed in the Facebook post, but she identifies its cause—one that would be completely eliminated with a basic understanding of the gospel, more specifically, the part about Grace.

Mrs. May, the protagonist of “Greenleaf,” owns a small farm and she believes it functions entirely by her efforts and hers alone. She declares to her city friends, “Everything is against you, the weather is against you and the dirt is against you and the help is against you.” She is blind to the fact that without weather and dirt, there is no farm—these things aren’t adversaries, they are gifts. And so is the help—the help is Mr. Greenleaf.

The narrator tells us that Mrs. May “had set herself up in the dairy business after Mr. Greenleaf had answered her ad.” Mr. Greenleaf‘s arrival precedes the establishment of the farm. Good thing too, because he is the reason her farm is as successful as it is. This is not, at first, apparent because the third-person narrator tells the story from Mrs. May’s perspective and is, therefore, not to be trusted to report things honestly. For instance, when the narrator reports a field had come up in clover instead of rye “because Mr. Greenleaf had used the wrong seeds in the grain drill,” we are receiving Mrs. May’s interpretation of reality. Mr. Greenleaf actually ignored her instructions because he knew better.

Everything Mrs. May has, comes to her through the created world and her good fortune at the arrival of Mr. Greenleaf. But she doesn’t see any of it. She places a high value on her own, relatively insignificant, efforts and a correspondingly low value on the many undeserved blessings she receives.

Mrs. May’s rejection of Grace is shown through various symbols. Among these is the “black wall of trees with a sharp sawtooth edge that held off the indifferent sky.” The sun, a symbol of providential grace, is blocked off from Mrs. May’s property. In one of her dreams, “the sun [was] trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped to watch, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did outside her property.” Her dreams reflect her stance toward God and his gifts.

The Greenleafs, on the other hand, absorb grace in all its forms. The name is suggestive of their familial attitude toward grace, for green leaves soak up the sun and flourish. When Mrs. May takes a trip out to the farm belonging to Mr. Greenleaf’s twin boys, the “the sun was beating down directly” on to the roof of their house. Their milking parlor “was filled with sunlight” and “the metal stanchions gleamed ferociously.” By contrast, from Mrs. May’s window the sun was “just a little brighter than the rest of the sky.”

Mrs. May resented the Greenleaf’s. She means it as criticism when she says, “They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she had struggled to put into the land.” Here we see that she both takes credit for God’s gifts, and she derides the Greenleaf’s for living out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:28, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.”

Once, Mrs. May flippantly says, “I thank God for that.” Mr. Greenleaf sincerely responds, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.” He lives out the Biblical injunction to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18).

O’Connor’ whole point with Mrs. May is to show that a denial of grace necessarily leads to ingratitude and resentment. Mrs. May’s life is defined by ingratitude, but she is blind to this failing. Ironically, she says to Mr. Greenleaf, “some people learn gratitude too late . . . and some never learn it at all.”

If you live in North America, you’ve won some sort of a lottery. You live in an affluent society where the infrastructure fosters wealth and where opportunities for work and education abound. You enjoy the highest standard of living of any time or any place in history. Even if you are in the lower-middle class, you take for granted luxuries not even dreamed of by the richest rulers of the greatest empires in history.

And you have all this either as an act of divine will or, if you’re not religious, as an accident of birth, but either way, you can take no credit for it. It’s an undeserved gift; it’s grace.

The appropriate response for grace in any form is gratitude and not resentment. When we understand everything we have as a gift, we are far more willing to give it away—and support our government giving it away on our behalf.

Mrs. May was so ungrateful for her undeserved blessings that she poisoned herself and her two sons. She created a false reality where Mr. Greenleaf was a parasite feeding off of her family.

If Mrs. May had Facebook, she certainly would have “liked” the photo. But she had no understanding of grace.

Coffee and Conscience – Part 3

In Christ and Culture on October 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm

“Where quality is the thing sought after, the thing of supreme quality is cheap, whatever the price one has to pay for it.” – William James

For many, coffee can only be enjoyed when they know that the production of it hasn’t had significant environmental and human costs.  To help such concerned consumers find ethical coffee, various organizations have begun to certify producers and label coffee according to standards of stewardship.  For those who want to drink coffee that doesn’t hurt the environment or the people who produce it, these labels help direct them to this coffee.

The Fair Trade label indicates that the producers and workers in developing countries have received a fair price for their coffee and a fair wage for their labour.  The rap against Fair Trade coffee is that it is restricted to small, family run farms, and, even though there are larger, non-family run farms that produce coffee ethically.  Furthermore, there is nothing stopping greedy merchants from taking advantage of well-intentioned consumers by charging exorbitant prices for coffee bearing the label.  These concerns may be valid, but a third is not.  The objection that Fair Trade coffee isn’t quality coffee is misapplied; average ratings given to Fair Trade coffees by professional tasters are the same as those of other specialty coffees, and they are on the rise.

The Certified Organic label means that the coffee wasn’t grown using pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified seeds. Bird Friendly and Rainforest Alliance-Certified Shade Grown coffee labels mean that it was grown using traditional methods so that trees on coffee plantations are preserved, rather than clear-cut.  The Rainforest Alliance has begun to certify coffee producers who raise coffee in areas that have been deforested if these producers are pursuing a program to return trees into these clear cuts and cultivating coffee in the shade.

There is another way you can be reasonably assured that your coffee is produced ethically—simply drink great coffee.  The idea here is to pay a higher price for a higher quality and by doing so, rewarding the most committed growers.  Great coffee is not grown in the full sun of a clear cut and doused with chemicals.  Great coffee requires great care at every step of the process.  There’s a wonderful principle at work here.  The best coffee is produced using methods and means that respect the people who grow it and the environment in which it is grown.  It’s as if justice and natural law have been fused.

*

Suzanne, a friend of mine, has visited Honduras twice in the last three years.  She did so as a member of her church’s Missions Team.  She was struck by the poverty she saw there.  In order to eat, entire families worked on the coffee plantations and were paid almost nothing.  Suzanne believes that if the adults received an adequate wage, the young children would be able to go to school and the cycle of poverty would be broken.

The Missions Team, believing that serving ethical coffee was essential to supporting the coffee producing communities, like those in Honduras, convinced the church leadership to switch to Fair-Trade coffee.  They agreed, but Suzanne now wonders if perhaps they agreed because they believed, as do the corporate advertisers, that ethical coffee was chic and would be an attractant of sorts.  When Suzanne’s church began a large building project, there was an over-all increase in donations, but less was directed to church ministries.  Cuts were necessary.  They switched to a less expensive coffee.

*

Residents of Abbotsford, BC, where I live, are the most generous people in Canada.  Their contribution to charities is more than double the national average.  One explanation is that the community is very religious.  My experience with the religious community in Abbotsford is that they will, in a flash, write a cheque to help a school in Nicaragua or a water project in Guatemala.  But, all the while, they go home and make a pot of coffee from a can, not realizing how much they could help those very communities by switching to good coffee.

They buy the cheaper product because they are good people with a commitment to stewardship, unaware of the global effect of their purchase habits.

*

What about Starbucks?  Starbucks has good coffee.

If you are concerned with the social and environmental effects of coffee production, your choice between buying Starbucks and corporate canned coffee is clear—buy Starbucks.  Starbucks does deserve some thanks.   Although it was unintentional, they have helped the plight of the coffee grower.  In their quest for profits, they have given us a taste for good quality coffee. When I had my first sip of Starbucks, I thought it was too strong and too bitter.  By the time I finished that cup, I realized there was much more to coffee than caffeine and a bit of warmth; I realized I loved coffee.  It was Starbucks that helped me to see coffee as more than a caffeinated brown liquid.  And by introducing me to good coffee, they put me on a quest for a great one.

But, to whom should Starbucks be compared?  If you are comparing Starbucks to a small roaster—again, the choice is clear—don’t buy Starbucks.  Because there are so many good coffees to experience, it seems a shame to limit oneself to Starbucks’ Pike’s Place blend.  Further, the variation found in the coffee be reflected in the environment we drink it in.  Since when did conformism become a core American value so that the coffee shop needs to look exactly the same in Seattle as it does in Soho—or worse yet, the same in Vegas as in Venice.

*

On Saturday mornings, I often accompany my wife to the local farmer’s market, an excursion made much more attractive since Grab-A-Java set up a booth.  Grab-A-Java, “a small-batch, wholesale micro-roaster,” is owned and operated by Dave Perrit.  I visited his roaster one cold November afternoon.  The small black roaster squats in the middle of a room in his house.  It is warm and the hum of the fans swirl the woody aroma of the roasting coffee beans.  Dishevelled piles of labels run along the counter which is shared by large bins filled with freshly roasted coffee.  His coffee comes from one supplier, Organic Products Trading Co. (OPTCO), which sources green coffee from all over the world.  All the beans are both Free Trade and Certified Organic, but they are special in another way.  They are Café Femenino beans.

Café Femenino is a cooperative formed in 2004 by women in Northern Peru who were searching to improve the lives of their families as well as to gain some control of the coffee they worked so hard to produce.  To sell coffee from Café Femenino, a roaster must commit to contributing to local women’s shelters and/or the Café Femenino Foundation.  Grab-A-Java supports both.  This concept is spreading to existing co-ops in Columbia, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Brazil and Guatemala, and soon to be introduced in Rwanda.

*

In 1999, I watched a bandana-masked protester heave a USA Today newspaper box through the window of a Starbucks during the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle.  This attack wasn’t just random window breaking—it had targeted the coffee shop.  At the time I was disgusted by the lack of respect for property and authority.  But one question lingered: What are they so mad about?  Since then, I have heard things, dark whisperings about coffee and third-world exploitation.  I worry that maybe righteous anger is the appropriate response, and I should indignantly slam my coffee cup (empty) into the bin.  But I love coffee.  Coffee is why I get up in the morning; it’s why I can teach writing to 16 year olds in the last class of the day; it’s why I am willing to run errands after work.   But I also desire to do what’s right and good, so I have endeavored here to find out if there is such a thing as an ethical cup of coffee?

It turns out there is—a great one, best served with a home-made chocolate-chip cookie.

Other resources:

Bacon, Chris.  “Confronting the Coffee Crisis.” World Development33:3 (2004) : 497-511.

Ball, Barbara. Coffee Talk: Sharing Christ Through Friendly Gatherings. San Bernardino: Churches Alive!, 1979.

“The Coffee Addiction.” Scott Wapner. CNBC, Shaw Cable, West.  29 Sept. 2011. Television.

Capon, Robert Farrar.  The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. New York: HJB, 1969.

Davids Kenneth. “Starting with Cans: Mainstream Supermarket Coffees.”  Coffee Review.  Jan. 2007. Web. 5 Nov. 2011

Ditto, Jason. 2basnob.com. “Coffee Tasting” n.p. 2008. Web.  12 Oct. 2011.

Ellison, Katherine . “Can Great Coffee Save the Jungle?” Smithsonian 35. 3 (2004) : 100-107.

Gaudio, Rudolf P. “Coffee Talk: StarbucksTM and the Commercialization of Casual Conversation.” Language in Society.  32:5 (2003) : 659-691.

Karris, Robert J. Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel.  Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006.

Leonard, Annie. The Story of Stuff.   Free Range Studios, 2007

Moguel, Patricia and Victor Toledo.  “Biodiversity Conservation in Traditional Coffee Systems in Mexico.” Conservation Biology.  13.1 (1999) : 11-21.

Murray, Douglas L. “The future of Fair Trade Coffee: dilemma’s facing Latin America’s small scale producers.” Development in Practice. 16.2 (2006) : 171-192.

“Pencils, Metal Recycling, Coffee.” How Its’ Made. Discovery.  Shaw Cable, West. 12 Oct. 2011.

Rottenberg, James A. “Ecological Role of a Tree [Gamelina Arborea] Plantation in Guatemala.” The Auk. 124.1 (2007): 316-330.

Steer, Simon M.  Eating Bread in the Kingdom of God.  Diss. Westminster Theological Seminary, 2002. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2002.