King of Zion*

I was a traveller in an ancient land
Who saw two vast and tow’ring walls of stone
Rise from the river. Unpropped, they stand
Halfway to heaven, by sunset’s light shown
Redder even than each iron-laced band,
Telling of a sculptor from whose great head
Flow designs magnificent; o’er all things
Must He reign. Of Him was it truly said:
“Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God hath shined.” Back to His vast throne-room rings
The praise of all, rendered not from duty.
“The heavens shall declare his righteousness,”
Cry these hills, shouting beyond dispute. He,
O His people, whose wonders we confess.

*Brought to you by Psalm 50, with assistance pilfered from P.B. Shelly.

Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

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To the Ends of the Earth, or Bust

A little musing from a couple of years ago. 

There are billions of people around the world in thousands of unreached people groups with little or no hope of hearing the Gospel in their lifetime. What are you prepared to do?

This sort of appeal to the immensity of the Church’s task in fulfilling the Great Commission has become the stock-in-trade of the global missions movement in the past few years. The scope of the demand is true, of course. We shouldn’t lose sight of Christ’s promise that “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations” (Matt. 24:14) or the faithful and courageous efforts of missionaries and organizations working in every corner of the world.

Often, however, this appeal has the opposite effect—the call is so great, so all-encompassing, so abstracted in the minds of most Christians, that they end up doing nothing (or very little) because they cannot do everything. There is a growing body of research from the psychological realm that points to the simple fact that we have trouble feeling responsible to do things we feel we are powerless to accomplish.

How does this square with clear commands of Scripture? Surely God would not call us to do that which He knows we are incapable of…or would He? Actually, He does that all the time, calling dead men to live. The trick is that God gives the life He asks for. Our making disciples is entirely contingent on His Spirit bringing both us and those we reach to life. The power for the action of our obedience and the results of that obedience come from Him. He is the one who makes possible the impossible (Mark 10:27).

If you think about it, how much more unattainable must the Great Commission have seemed to the first disciples, still digesting Christ’s words as He hurtled into the Judean sky? For us, it starts with millions of faithful believers in multiple countries and cultures, billions of dollars in resources, the Scripture in thousands of languages—all incredible advantages. The apostles had obstacles to the goal we could never imagine. There were 11 of them (12 when Paul was “recruited”) and an entire world of unregenerate souls. And yet they obeyed, the truth prevailed, and caused the dry bones of sinful men to become as flesh.

The temptation to give in to the apathy of the overwhelmed, I would submit, comes because we have forgotten the truth of God’s power embedded in the Scriptures—not just when taken as a whole, but in the very passages that call us to the task.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’(Matt. 28:19-20).

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).

Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:18-20).

This Gospel is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), and He who made the world and all that is in it will accomplish His task. Our participation at whatever place He leads us is part of His plan. We obey, but the work is His, the results are His, and the glory is His. Ours is not to change the hearts of men, but only to tell them of the One who will. Reaching the nations begins with reaching your neighbor. In any good-sized Western city, reaching your neighbors often is reaching the nations—with people from many tribes, tongues, and nations moving in to seek a better life for their families.

We may want to throw in the towel (or, on the other hand, attempt own the task and own some of the glory), but our desire for success and significance beyond obedience is in vain. As T. S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets:

“These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.”

Keeping Your Head on Straight

A couple of unrelated experiences have lately oozed together in my mind to form something resembling an idea.

The first is the mundane recognition that I was tired of living with chronic low-level back & neck pain. This led to my visiting this week, for the first time, a chiropractor. I’ve had my skepticism about the more expansive claims of the discipline, but some research and lots of recommendations from friends leads me to think that it might actually be helpful in relieving muscle pain associated with spinal misalignment.

As the the lopsided ess of my should-be-straight backbone stared back at me on the x-ray screen, I was more than a little embarrassed that I’d refused to seek care for so long. Though there could be many causes for this situation, it’s likely that it’s the follow-on result of a bad fall on ice when I was seventeen that nearly dislocated my left hip. That’s 15 years ago, folks, and I’m just now dealing with it.

There’s another metaphor or two in all this (i.e. “Take better care of yourself; there is no glory in stoic suffering to save a few bucks.”), but what stood out is the fact that your body will go to great lengths to literally keep your head on straight. That hip trauma led to a minor twist between two lumbar vertebrae…which caused my left hip to sit slightly higher than the right…which caused me to lean almost imperceptibly to the right…which made me tilt my shoulders ever so slightly to the left so that my head stayed vertical. That series of tiny shifts, plus years of gravity, resulted in constant, nagging soreness—all for the sake of keeping the top level.

The second experience involved dropping in on a session of my boss‘s college course (Economic Development in the Majority World) this morning. Our staff does that from time to time to show our support for that side of his work (he might say it’s to keep him on his toes, but…). Today’s lesson looked at the differences between Development Economics, Neoclassical Economics, Behavioral Economics, and a Christian approach to economics. Key to this is recognizing a) certain institutions must be in place for the neoclassical approach to make sense, b) that institutions must come from somewhere, and c) that cultural realities must be reckoned with.

Culture BoxAs part of the discussion, he brought up the “Culture Box”, which describes the ways that institutions are shaped by worldview, values, and actions, as well as how they shape those in return (see my rudimentary diagram at right). In an economic context, this helps to explain why simply importing an institution (say, a reserve banking system or fair taxation of markets) on to a culture that lacks the values (rule of law, equal rights for all people, etc.) that would generate consistent actions necessary to sustain that institution does not result in meaningful positive change.

Here’s where things get weird these two thoughts converge into a notion. This culture box functions like a “spine” of sorts. In the same way that your head has to be properly supported by the rest of your bone structure, the visible institutions of a culture have to come from solid underpinnings of worldview, values, and actions. If your spine is out of line, your head (hopefully) won’t fall off, but holding it in place creates discomfort and dysfunction all the way down. If the way you see the world doesn’t match with the institutions attempting to govern your culture, either your culture will be squeezed to match the institutions or the institutions will come crashing down like so many philosophical Jenga blocks.

So how does positive change actually come about?

Chiropractic can’t be a cure-all because your spine and your head are not all there is to your body. Your muscles, your posture, your nutrition, and many other factors also play in to your overall health. The culture box model likewise assumes an overly rational approach to life, leaving out the critical dimension of our hearts and habits (and the sin nature of those hearts) that impacts all the rest. It leaves us vulnerable to what James K.A. Smith calls “Thinking-thing-ism” by giving undue credit to our minds alone to drive our flourishing.

What we need (which is where the Econ Development class wrapped up) is the fulness of Christ. Christ not only renews our minds, but he dwells within our hearts. He is not only the head of the Church, but is its animating spirit—enabling the very actions He commands of us. “For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17).

All things” means “all things,” and any view of life or cultural structure that refuses to come to terms with this Lord will not ultimately stand. The sin that so twists and distorts our lives and our systems cannot move Him from His place as the head. But rather than toppling or crushing us, He redeems and restores. In His grace, he chastens those He loves, cracking our weary backs into alignment with His righteousness, justice, and peace.