The Benedict Option, God’s Will, and Why Everyone Needs to Chillax

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The Benedict OptionIn Christian circles, many have been talking about Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Fact is, people have been talking about it for about three years now, because that’s how long Dreher has been doling out bits of his major thesis about why Christians need to form their own remote, intentional communities. Given how much I’ve read of what Dreher has already written online, I will probably never read the book.

Nonetheless, here is my review of The Benedict Option. It’s one word:

Whatever.

Oddly enough, that’s my review of most Christian books advocating for widespread change or action from all Christians. At one point, I used to be keen to grasp and understand this idea of preserving Christian faith from the ravages of rapidly degrading culture. Like many Christians, I had concerns about this thing or that. I had worries. I’m sure you have or have had worries too.

But what I have come to realize in the last few years is that the reasons the Church in America is worried, or needs to worry, or doesn’t need to worry, are not really about what is happening outside the Church, but inside. You can say that’s always been the focus of Cerulean Sanctum: Church Heal Thyself.

But you read all these dystopian nonfiction books about the bad stuff arriving soon to hurt the Church, and what you finally realize is that all these books and warnings, and cautions, and handwringings are all brilliantly reasoned answers to the wrong questions.

We have this strange, self-absorbed idea in contemporary Western Christianity that the most pressing issue for the entirety of the world is that one thing that is most pressing to me. And we wonder how it is that people can be so blind so as not to see X bearing down on us like a runaway train. Why is it that you aren’t taking X seriously? Why aren’t you doing something about X? You must be in sin because X doesn’t matter to you as much as it does to me.

And after a while, it all gets silly, this one-size-fits-all approach to discipleship and God’s working in the lives of His people.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Draw near to God.

Hear what God asks of me for my situation alone.

In response to that hearing, do what I can to achieve it with the unique resources God has provided to me.

Be at peace.

It sounds to me that God may be asking Rod Dreher to write a book about intentional communities that create a place of retreat. Maybe God is asking Rod Dreher to even start one.

That’s great for Rod Dreher.

And while it’s great for Rod Dreher, what it does not mean is that I must necessarily heed Rod Dreher’s call and follow the Benedict Option.

What is God asking of me in the situation in which He has placed me? What is God asking of you?

It seems to me that where we have gone astray in the modern church isn’t so much that we lost the culture wars and now must retreat to intentional communities but that we have made it mandatory to follow what some Christian leader, prognosticator, or pundit says. Sure we can listen, but we can also reject if that person’s message conflicts with what we know God is asking of you or of me in the situation you or I find before us.

Possessing no one-size-fits-all approach to life can be frightening. It means there isn’t a uniform plan. I think this scares us because listening to God to find our next steps can be hard. You can’t listen if you don’t draw near, and drawing near takes time and quiet. And we run the risk of getting the listening wrong.

This causes anxiety. Here is where we make our second mistake.

The Bible says this:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
—Hebrews 12:1-2

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
—Ephesians 2:8-10

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’”
—Isaiah 45:9-10

Who founded the faith you have? God alone.

Who is perfecting the faith you have? God alone.

Who can force God’s hand on any of this? Not you. Not me. No one.

You and I are not in control. You and I did not start this, and we will not finish it. All that is on God.

So relax.

In fact, all God really asks of us is to show up. That’s it. And some days, we may not even do that. I think He understands that happens sometimes. What God really wants from us more than anything else is to draw near to Him and to talk with Him and listen.

It may be that in any given day, all I can do is go to the grocery store, buy some Pepto, and help a sick family member get over an upset stomach. Is that what God is asking of me? Perhaps it is. Perhaps that is the extent of today’s focus.

Perhaps that is what I am hearing from God when I draw near to Him today. And if that’s all there is, that’s OK. My eternal security does not rest on what I get done today but in whom I rest, the Lord.

It may be that God is calling some Christians to live radical lives on the fringes of civilization.

Or He may be calling some to care for the sick in hospitals or to build airplanes.

Or He may be saying to some to cease from their labors for the moment and just rest in Him.

Or He may be asking some to write a poem or a letter of encouragement to someone else.

Most likely, whatever it it is He may be asking of you or me, it may be something small, something for this moment.

Our mistake is to criticize another Christian for what he or she may or may not be doing based upon what we think we should or should not be doing. Yes, the Bible does lay out a few clear boundaries, but within those boundaries reside entire worlds of conversation and opportunity. And the conversation you had with God and the opportunity it created is unique. I won’t criticize you about mine. Don’t criticize me about yours. When and if possible, let’s do what we can to help each other make each other’s possible.

So as a review of The Benedict Option, I say, whatever. Maybe it is God’s word to you about your next step. Or maybe it’s not. Whichever answer it becomes to you as you draw near to God and listen, God is thankfully in control.

A Christian Guide to Understanding People and Ministering Reconciliation

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“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
—Romans 3:10a-18

 

When [Jesus] went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.
—Mark 6:34

Several years ago, I wrote a post called “Trying to Get By,” wherein I attempted to chronicle the most basic fact of the human condition: most people are just trying to get by.

Time has not tempered this impression. If anything, it increasingly drives how I think about people.

Everyone sins. Everyone does “bad” things. Everyone enthrones himself or herself at the center of the universe. Christians believe this is because mankind rebelled against God and tried to become gods themselves. And we got what we wanted—to a point. Obviously, that rebellion did not work out well and continues to fail miserably. One of the reasons I’m a Christian is that the Christian worldview explains the mess we see in this world better than anything else does.

The Book of Romans quote above pulls together several passages of the Old Testament. It also pulls no punches in its tragic description of badly messed up people. People like you and me.

In the passage from Mark, Jesus surveyed the great mass of us and understood our lostness, our condition as brainless sheep, wanderers in search of something we can’t understand.

black_sheep_with_whiteAnd that goes back to my idea of people just trying to get by. Lost sheep will do whatever it is that will sustain life for just one more day. That sheep finds a way to cope. Even if that coping mechanism barely ranks on the scale of great coping mechanisms, it will employ that method so long as it sustains—because that sheep usually doesn’t know any better. With that flawed coping mechanism, it got through one more day, and that’s all that matters. No sense exploring something better if that mechanism worked.

In truth, that’s where people are. If lies worked, they will use lies. If truth worked, they will use truth. If sex, drugs, and rock & roll worked, then sex, drugs, and rock & roll it will be. For most people, the words of John Lennon do indeed guide them:

Whatever gets you through the night, ‘salright, ‘salright.

I think the only way that Christians can understand people is if we acknowledge that all the wrong we see in the world is due to the poor, sinful coping mechanisms of broken people just trying to get by. People use mechanisms that God warns never to do. They do stupid things not with intent to hurt others but because they seek to keep themselves from hurting somehow, even if that coping mechanism only makes the hurt worse in the long run. In that moment, that defective, deficient way sustained just enough, regardless of the destructive wake it left behind.

None of this is to pretend that organized evil does not exist. But even organized evil as expressed through human beings usually starts at the level of just trying to get by.

When we talk about ideological differences between people, we need to understand that one reason others hold a different view from us is because an alternate coping mechanism worked for them. In most cases, it’s all they know. To us, that mechanism may be monstrous, but to those people, it got them through another night, so it must be right.

At this point, it’s tempting to fall into an Old Testament understanding of wickedness as shown in the Romans passage above and miss Jesus’ example of compassion on the teeming crowd. Jesus could have condemned all those wanderers, but instead, He taught them. He gave them something they didn’t have. He gave them a better way to cope, a perfect way: He gave them Himself, both in that moment and, later, on the cross.

Too often, Christians want to change people’s coping mechanism by loading down those people with all the bad news and none of the Good News. We want to act as judges. We want our own sinful coping mechanisms validated, and nothing feels better than wallowing in self-righteousness.

But that’s not how it works. This is how it works:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
—2 Corinthians 5:14-21

The ministry of each Christian on this planet is what you just read: help reconcile people to God. In doing so, God will work out new coping mechanisms in the lives of lost, broken, sinful people. And again, what is that coping mechanism? Himself. God gives people His Son through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

The best place for any Christian to begin in this ministry of reconciliation is to acknowledge his or her own need to be reconciled to God. The Christian must see that in God exist all the answers to how we should and should not cope with an existence tainted by our own grab for power, by our sin birthed long ago in the Garden and now at work in our lives, battering and bruising us. We must recognize that both our enemies and our friends are driven by the same basic failing. We must see that everyone needs reconciliation, not just the people who bother, oppose, and persecute us. It is our mutual dunk in the cesspool that unites us in our need for reconciliation to God. It is this realization that should humble us.

Christian, are you a source of reconciliation or a source for division? Yes, Christ brings a sword that divides even families, but that’s His role as Lord. Your role is to be an ambassador. And if you are ministering reconciliation and Jesus should step in and bring that divisive sword, that’s His prerogative, not yours. You work for reconciliation. Bring healing. Work for peace. Build bridges. Be the calm in the storm of other people’s lives.

Manifest the ministry of reconciliation wherever you go. Allow the Holy Spirit to show you how in the lives of each person you meet each day. It’s not hard. If anything, the most countercultural activity we can do for the Kingdom within this age is to be kind to others at all times. It’s not hard to be kind. It’s a choice, and God can empower us to choose it.

When we interact with another person, remember that he or she is just trying to get by. What better example of coping rightly would God have you demonstrate to that person? How can you show that person the better way that is Jesus Himself?

It’s really so simple.

What Is Repentance?

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One of the things that saddens me most about where we are in America at this stage in history is our inability to repent. And one of the reasons Americans are such strangers to repentance is that I don’t think we know what it is anymore.

I could quote a lot of Bible verses here, but if you want to find out more about repentance, do the due diligence and study it yourself. I’m just going to share what I know and keep it all simple.

And the simplest truth about repentance is that it’s turning back to God.

Notice that there’s nothing really added to that. I didn’t even mention sin.

The reason I didn’t mention bad things that you do is because sin isn’t really bad things that you do. Sin is what you are. Sin exists on the level of atoms, and DNA, and all those tiny bits that make up you, even bits that abide in the world of the spiritual. And for that reason, it’s why all the silly things religious people do to try to get rid of bad things inside themselves are such a fool’s errand.

OK, so I lied a little about Bible verses here. I’m going to reference Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. Most people know the story, but if you don’t, it will be at the end of this post. I paraphrase below to get us thinking the same way…

A son came to his father and said, “I wish you were dead.” Because that was how he now viewed his father, the son demanded his father act as if he were dead, which meant the son demanded the still-living father hand over inheritance money. The father complied. And because the son was driven by the stupidity of sin down to the atomic level, he stayed true to that nature and did stupid, sinful things that took him to stupid, sinful places inhabited by stupid, sinful people. In short order, the money ran out, and the son took a lousy job in a lousy place and generally felt lousy.

In time, he missed his father. So the son left that place of stupidity and stumbled home, where his father was waiting for him with open arms. No lecture from the father, no recap of bad choices, just love.

I leave some of the details of that story to the theologians and preachers, but the key point of the story is not all the hooker-boinking and booze-hounding the son did on his inheritance spending spree. All the son was doing was being true to his nature, to that atomic level of sin that no one can deal with on his own because it’s always at work and permeates everything. The point of the story is that the son went back home to a father who loved him.

Detail from Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son"The history of God throughout the Bible is of a father waiting at home for prodigals to come back to Him. The Bible starts with man wandering off and ends with man being at home with God forever.

In the prodigal’s story, the son didn’t try to mask his stupidity or somehow make amends for it. He just went back home. The father can deal with the stupidity and the filth. In reality, God does that through Jesus, who became sin on our behalf and dealt it a deathblow on the cross. The point is that the father knows the sin is there. He deals with it. All he wants is the wanderer to be home with him.

God throughout the Bible waits at home and calls stupid people, those infested with sin down to their cores—in short, everyone—to come back to Him. And when they do turn around and head back, it’s not to a household where the father has kept track of every stupid thing the prodigal has done, because the father isn’t interested in keeping a record of stupidity. No, the father is simply glad the wanderer is home.

And chances are, because prodigality is ingrained in humanity to the atomic level, that wanderer will likely go wandering again. But the father is steadfast, and he’ll be there at home with open arms. Because sometimes the truth about the father must be learned again and again. Fact is, in time, the wanderings do lessen. Maybe not to the point of going away entirely, but learning that the best is with the father begins to sink in over the course of a lifetime.

The sad reality about the story of the prodigal son is that a lot of prodigals out there prefer feeling lousy doing the lousy job in the lousy place to being at home with the father. They haven’t woken up yet and may never do so. They tend to be people whose point of reference doesn’t extend beyond their nose. For them, home and the father are two concepts that are a long way off in a faraway land, and they stay that way.

Hell isn’t filled with every person tainted by sin at the atomic level. It’s filled with people who don’t want to be where the Father is. They said to Him, “I wish you were dead,” and they left it at that. In a way, they found their hellaciously alien “home” away from home and made it permanent. They never came back to their real home from their place in that far-off land. They never came back to the father awaiting them with open arms.

I could go into all sorts of theological depth here, but in truth, we can bury this story under heaps of analysis and miss the main point that all repentance is is going back home to where God abides. All God wants is an intimate relationship with people, people who will retain that taint of sin on them this side of eternity. All He wants is to be with you. His arms are wide open.

Come home.

 

And [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
— Luke 15:11-32