Deck the Halls with Boughs of Liberty

Posted in Cultural, Evangelism, Lifestyle, Missional with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2009 by ostrakinos

Massive consumerism dressed up as good will and genuine affection pulled out of the Black Friday haze yesterday. Once-a-year feedings from guilt-ridden citizens who need to get in their last minute good deeds of the year before the accounting is closed showed up as well.  Fake Santas with fake stories about quasi-idols rolled out into the streets, too.  The pagan-rooted folk tales co-mingled with intense commercialism make for a bitter seasonal soup. As believers, it’s a bit too easy to poke fun at the holidays.

So what should we think about it all?  Should we become isolated purists who refuse to emerge from our Keebler tree until everyone practices things according to our regulations? Should we just ignore all the hype and boycott everything?  Should we rebuke anyone who dare put up a Druid-inspired evergreen with all the fancies? Scrooge certainly would approve.

I think a simple solution is found in our liberty under Christ. While we should never go against our conscience in matters of practice (1Timothy 1:5) nor should we attempt to bind others by our own, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “… why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?” (1Cor. 10:29b-30)

It is completely possible to participate in our cultural holiday festivities without being trapped in consumerism. One can put up holiday decorations without bowing to them and we can certainly sing songs about reindeers and elves as part of the ‘being all things to all people’ without automatically worshipping mini-gods and animals.

In fact, as one who did refrain from holiday practices for almost five years, I can say that taking such an extreme view of non-participation actually does more harm for the cause of Christ than it helps. Let me explain.

Because I adamantly refused anything to do with Christmas, I was constantly being looked at as if I were some cultist or Jehovah’s Witness. Why, in their mind, would my protest of ‘CHRIST’mas, somehow make me a better Christian? My boycott had the opposite result. Piety fail.

The same effect was felt regarding my family and friends. Not one single ear was open to my attempted adherence to a more faithful life.  In fact, being so tightly wound up only made me angry and mostly useless. I know that one can adhere to abstaining from holiday participation and not be angry all the time, but I have rarely seen it. No one wanted to talk to me about anything biblical, let alone listen to the gospel. I wasn’t preaching it either.

We should be in the world, just not of the world. Openly embracing the cultural holiday within the limits of moderation will present far more genuine opportunities to win someone to Christ then choosing to stay home or show up with a grimace.

Take advantage of the common grace given to us during this holiday season. Rejoice in the birth of Christ! Show your love to family and friends and enemies alike! Preach the truth in season.


Murder, Faith and Hope

Posted in Evangelism on September 20, 2009 by ostrakinos

new orleans street orangeYet again, our community’s pulse is weak.  The sounds of more drive-by shootings pierce the streets as wickedness continues to spread and seek dominance over stressed and blighted neighborhoods. As a cherished city, New Orleans still aches to rebuild and assert herself as a good place to be; but, increased crime and death rates only lead to cynicism and confusion. What on earth compels someone to put a bullet into the stomach of a three year old child? How can it be that the average life span for African-Americans living in New Orleans is nearly as low as the average life expectancy in North Korea? Our great cities continue to decay as this grand destruction is served up on a corruption wheel that would make even Huey Long blush.  We sit in dismay thinking about our immediacy and the future.

Yet, if we are rooted in the truth of Scripture, we know that God’s Word brings us not only to the past, but to the present and the future.  We are not left without understanding. God has revealed to us that hands have and will continue to shed innocent blood as long as He chooses to not fully restrain evil. (Proverbs 6:17; Rev. 11:7-8)  The tension between God’s sovereign purpose and our finite comprehension is never resolved for us; instead, we are told to trust in His providence just as in Joseph’s time – “…you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” (Gen. 50:20) Though we aren’t sure as to God’s secretive will we are called to trust that He is not unaware (Deut. 29:29).

If we are honest, we will admit that we struggle with this truth; however, God is greater than our myopic opinions. Faith can be blind, but true saving faith is simply well-formed.  We all have faith in something -the ultimate question is “what is the OBJECT of our faith?”  As believers, we put our trust in the Lord our God, maker of heaven and earth, of things seen and unseen. We put our faith not in chariots or mayors or human empires; we put our hope in our beloved Savior who will judge the living and the dead when He returns in the fullness of His glory.

May we be found faithful.

Beautiful Poetry

Posted in Arts, Cultural, Evangelism with tags , , , , , on September 11, 2009 by ostrakinos

Listen fully as she brings beautiful words.

That’s what I’m talkin’ bout.

On Kissing the Chicken or How Lumping Coals Dealt Rightly with Racism

Posted in 'Racism', Cultural, Evangelism on September 1, 2009 by ostrakinos

kiss the chickenEthnic tensions are common in our fallen metropolitan worlds as various people groups find themselves living in close proximity.  No where in America has this ‘racial’ tension been more evident or more infamous than with the Klu Klux Klan’s presence.

Rev. Wade Watts was a civil rights activist from Oklahoma who served as the state president of the NAACP for sixteen years.  Watts was friends with Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King and is the former congressman J.C. Watts’ uncle.

The late Rev. Watts left a legacy that was testified to by a former Klan leader Johnny Lee Clary while being interviewed on a show called, oddly enough “Enough Rope”.  This testimony by Clary is a wonderful example of obedience to God’s Proverbial-Romans command to overcome evil with good.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.”Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 8:15-21

Reflection on Four Years After Katrina

Posted in 'Racism', Rebuilding, Urban Missionaries on August 29, 2009 by ostrakinos

katrina radarShe was supposed to hit Florida. Instead, hurricane Katrina slid through the Gulf like a crafty curve ball tossed into home plate. That home plate turned out to be ours. In the early morning hours of August 29th, four years ago, she made landfall causing billions of dollars of damage with winds over 150 mph and flood waters crashing over and through both levees and hearts. Cities were leveled, homes were flooded and lives were changed forever. For those of us living here, it was surreal and maddening as rumors spread like a bad rash and information was sketchy, inaccurate and politically-driven. Incompetence pervaded overly-complicated turf wars with government agencies while locals scrambled to help their neighbors in self-motored flatboats. No one was prepared for the devastating magnitude. Divine sobriety came at the hands of our benevolent God who reminded us once again that Providence reigns. Though judgment, trials and suffering poured out from the skies so, too, did His grace. Through curfews, mayoral racism, bombastic officials, outrage, despair, lies, looting, civic breakdown and media buffoonery emerged light. God’s grace was seen in those who put themselves last and others first. Christ was indeed the first responder.

Churches began to flood in van by van with volunteers loaded with supplies  and love. Workers showed up from every state and many foreign countries to aid us in recovering and responding. The light of His undeserved favor was carried in as a torch of mercy so that we would learn to trust in the only One who can be trusted. Civic, military and faith-based hands worked together to help heal what was lanced.

Four years later, we reflect upon the media’s favoritism as many think that New Orleans was street house NOthe hardest hit metro-area when in truth, St. Bernard Parish was completely destroyed and virtually ignored and parts of the Mississippi Gulf Coast were taken to sea.  On our recent visit to New Orleans east we witnessed ghost-land neighbors peppered in between rebuilt homes and areas of many locales that still sit deserted. There is much to do.

We are thankful for the reminder of community. We got to meet thousands of neighbors. We are thankful for the reminder of love. We got to love many needy people. We are thankful for the reminder of grace. We got to meet our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ before eternity. We are thankful for grace. We got to understand the gospel of the Cross more deeply.

Join us in prayer for our region as we move on in continued urban relief.  Help us to help those who still need it as the poor and disadvantaged will be with us always. (Matthew 26:11) Ignore the glamor hounds and celebrities and biased reporters who know nothing about what has happened here and instead feed upon the truth given by those who have labored for years in the stench and debris of this great catastrophe.

May God be with us as we continue to fight the good fight for His glory.

A Letter to Christian Artists

Posted in Arts, Cultural, Music on June 2, 2009 by ostrakinos

Calvin SeerveldMy friend Dr. James Grier turned me on to Calvin Seerveld’s work in aesthetics.  In college while pursuing a pre-law degree in philosophy, I took a course on the study of aesthetics; it was one of the hardest classes I have ever taken.  We think we know something until we have to defend it. We believe that we understand something until we have to describe it. Defending aesthetic positions is a lot like attempting to describe the flavor of cinnamon to someone who lacks a tongue.

And so when it comes to aesthetics  and forming an apologetic about what we do and do not find appealing, beautiful or worthy in the arts, many times we find ourselves only being able to say, “I just like it.”  As one moves to a more transcendent view of life under the sovereignty of God this short Seerveld article in letter form is a must read.  I hope you find it as stimulating and encouraging as I did.  As we continue to examine urban life and culture and the allusive pulse of painters, musicians and writers may this piece serve as  a good beginning foundation.

Dear young artist,

Let me be as practical as Christ who said we are to love God above all and love fujimorathe neighbor as we respect ourselves (Matthew 22:31-39). The Bible tells us further that if we bear the burdens of our neighbor we will be fulfilling the law of Christ (Galatians 5:25-6:2).

This word of God for us as artists is not any easier than it is for a politician or an economist in our complicated secularized day. But this biblical injunction is a guideline for blessing, because it extricates you from the moil of serving yourself, of doing what is right just in your own eyes, and from thinking you need to jump into the swim of whatever elite or pop art scene is current.

I could put what I believe is wise counsel for those who would be artists in God’s world another way. Make your paintings, poetry, sculptures, songs, photography, stories, theatre pieces, music, or whatever artistry: craft it as a psalm before the face and ear of the Lord and let your neighbor listen in. Join the progeny of David, Asaph, Bezalel and Oholiab (Exodus 31:1-11), even the descendents of Korah (Psalms 42-49), and make merry before the LORD God, God’s people, and even one’s antagonists (Psalm 23:5). Also be as free as the biblical psalmists to cry out to God from the pits of despair in your need, to STOP THE PERSECUTION, Lord, suffered by Christ’s followers nearby or faraway (Psalms 69,109,137).

And make these psalms for settings outside the worshipping church door. Let them be heard on the radio, appear in art galleries, come across the boards in a theatre, and be printed in books.

To become an artist means you become a professional imaginator in order to help your handicapped unimaginative neighbor. Our artistic profession is meant to give voice, eyes, ears, and tactile sense to those who are underdeveloped toward such rich nuances of meaning in God’s creation.

Only God could make a tree and fashion a walrus, conceive precious stones that glint mysteriously in the dark depths of the earth. Only God could grace the loving, awkward union of faithful erotic intimacy between a man and a woman with such satisfying pleasure, and provide the hug of a family, schooling, neighborhoods and country for us humans to thrive within. But artists have the calling to make such treasures known to those who walk past such creatural riches without experiencing them. We artists disclose such creational blessings by fashioning a necklace of words (a poem) or the jewel of a melody (a song) for our neighbor about these great deeds of the LORD.

A Christian artist should also treat sin as the Bible does and not look the other way as the Pharisees did (Luke 10:25-37). But it will be important for you and me not to be self-righteous when we as Christian artists treat evil. The waste that sin brings into God’s good world and the addiction of us sinners who can’t break out of the habit of being deceptive, smug or violent, should bring sadness into the theatre pieces we write, not angry coldness. Sorrow must define our sculptures about war rather than let them become monuments to idealized heroics.

Because respectable-looking church goers often have terrible problems in the hidden recesses of their lives, I think we need “lament teams” along with the trend for “praise choruses.” Artists need to serve their neighbor who is hurting with more than escape and must weep in art with those who are weeping (Romans 12:14-15). To write elegies, memorials, and sad songs that are authentic we as artists will need to crawl compassionately inside the very skin of those who are starving, displaced, depressed, victimized, or fanatic with hatred, so the grace we artistically bring is not cheap. Maybe 11 September 2001 can give us North Americans new horizons for understanding the suffering that has been going on and is immense and poignant right now as you read this letter, throughout God’s world far from our shores, where real people, women and children are being slowly terrorized by famine and cruelty. We Christians have neighbors and enemies, and we know what the LORD requires: art that cries out at our sin and promises the mercy of the Lord for those who plead for help (Micah 6:6-8, Luke 6:17-38).

ananthalloI assume you will train to become a skilled artisan in the art of your choice (Ps 33:3). You do not have to aspire to be a “star” in the eyes of world society, like a comet shooting across the media sky. If you are faithful in providing nuanced manna in small venues, the LORD will prepare you for service in larger settings (Matthew 25:14-30).

The key thing is to be a reliable craftsman or woman in the imaginative task you perform. God loves amateur artists too, if they do not show off. But the Lord asks each one of us to hone our gifts with disciplined respect for the task at hand so the fruit of our imaginative hands be wholesome food for those who receive it. Find a talented mentor in your artform whom you can trust, and become a craftsmith worthy of hire.

Your redemptive task as artist is not to convert people or to be apologetic about your following Jesus Christ. A Christian artist simply needs to giveaway your imaginative insights to whoever crosses your path, and the Holy Spirit will take it from there.

And when a disbeliever in the Christ experiences in your short story a wrestling with God as Jacob did with the angel (Genesis 32:22-32) or as the poetic Psalmist of #39 did with the LORD God self; or if a stranger is caught by your painting and finds that your trusting God to come through somehow (as in Alan Paton’s novels) to be winsome; if your song of passionate love for a friend through thick and thin sounds unusual to a hard-hearted listener, making the listener jealous (as Paul says in Romans 11:13-14) for love that lasts beyond a sensual four-letter trick: then you as artist have been a faithful imaginative trustee of God’s gift to you (Matthew 24:36-51).

It is always important for us as artists not to be so heavenly minded we are no earthly good, but to be earthy with our redemptive cheer, down in the muck of life too, so that the imaginative grit we offer gives the resilience of hope to the neighbors who are dispirited.

chihullyThe Holy Spirit is the true source of the wisdom an artist needs to find his or her long-range place in society. Because artistry in Western culture has been either wrongly estranged from ordinary workaday life or has often been forced to become commercialized and formulaic to be acceptable by the masses, young artists with integrity have often needed to find non-artistic work related to their art in order to put bread on the kitchen table.

Christian artists have a responsibility to help overcome this sense of artistic alienation and displacement in society by making their art speak for neighbors. Give the neighbors what they imaginatively need, not just what they want, and wait patiently upon the Lord for blessing.

A good artistic photograph or song about human love and about human tragedy that breathes a sense of God’s hovering presence, which bespeaks obliquely that God’s got the whole damaged world in God’s hands, is a worthy living sacrifice of obedience in response to Christ’s command, “Follow me, young artists.”Artists have the glorious calling to intercede imaginatively for others, to increase perseverence and dispense a simple joy and peace that surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:4-7).

A good way not to feel lonely as an artist who would serve the Lord in deed is to realize you are a member of a community. You must not pity yourself as Elijah did and think you are the only displaced artist left faithful to the Lord (I Kings 19:1-8). You are not only a member of a church community–which sometimes has little place for artists unless they do “church art”– but a person in the numberless throng and communion of artistic saints who have existed since Adam’s poem for Eve before our fall into sin (Genesis 2:23).

So go find a tradition of Christian artistry in history–Ravenna mosaics, Reformation portraiture, German chorales, Puritan diaries, Russian novels, Afro-American rural blues or gospel, any particularly strong figure in your artform who breathes the mind of Christ: distill their contribution in disciplined fashion, update it, make it new through your own lived history, and then throw it like bread out upon the waters around you. God helping you it will not get lost but bring healing sustenance to those who are hungry and thirsty (Ecclessiastes 11:1-6).

No matter how difficult your own life may become as an artist, those who giveaway their artistry for the imaginative support of their neighbor, as an obedient thank you to the LORD, will be given the staying power of shalom until the Lord returns in glory. I pray that the church of Jesus Christ will grow the vision to support you in this preparation for the Rule of the LORD God over all aspects of God’s world which is acoming.

May God rest you merry at times, weary one. God keeps all your tears in God’s bottle (Psalm 56:8).

Calvin Seerveld, Toronto (November 2001)

Calvin Seerveld is senior member emeritus in Aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto.

the TECHNO-evangel

Posted in Evangelism, Lifestyle, Missional on June 1, 2009 by ostrakinos

appleboyI’ve done quite a lot of traveling over the past few weeks – over 2,500 miles of driving through nine states followed by a week in the Texas sun learning new building and construction techniques.  On the way to San Antonio, we flew through Houston and as always, I had that awkward experience associated with plane flights.

As I made my way through x-rays and security arches and long tile corridors with echoing loudspeakers, I noticed that most individuals carry gadgets and gizmos that preclude social interaction.  Ipods, cell phones, laptops and books occupy the majority of available arms as everyone shuffles off to wherever they are going; yet, they rarely seem interested in conversation. Earbuds say “I’m listening to something else other than you right now.” Faces buried in intense reading broadcast a “Do not disturb” door hanger to all within ten feet and hurried tapping on computer keys tells everyone that you are busy.  It is interesting how the very same technologies that aid us and help create new social venues also facilitate a new type of virtual cocooning.

This techno-inwardness has peculiar implications in evangelism for even though we seem to be more connected it is harder to meet naturally.  Electronic webs seem to be strewn over once interactive spaces and despite being inches away; we don’t talk to each other anymore. The nuances of body language and inflective speech have been overtaken by ‘crackBerries‘ and a new texting code has emerged as standard communique.  This same phenomenon exists inside elevator cubes as well, where small crowds stand together as tall pines and yet most hardly ever mumble a word.

airport windowFinding a way to enter the silence becomes evermore difficult when chitchat seems to be dying a quick wifi-death.  On the plane, I did manage to speak to a man who was reading a book by Hitchens entitled God is not Good. As he bowed his head into the pages, I curiously asked questions about the title and engaged him in an irenic conversation about life, the true nature of God and social justice.  It is possible to naturally penetrate the ever-growing social techno-cubists and the interesting part is that we do so in the same fashion that Christ, Paul and the other early evangelists and believers did – we exercise humble boldness, true compassion, and listen while we speak the truth of the Gospel in love. Communications and societal paths may change, but the Truth never waivers.

link break concrete strip 3