Engaging Culture – Where Do You Draw the Line?

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After showing up for my class yesterday without lecture notes (worst teacher nightmare ever), I felt the need to send my students an email summarizing what I was trying to say off the cuff.

We were at the point in the course where we were exploring the problem of sin and asking how far one enters into the culture in the search for God’s truth. For many in the class, who come from a holiness tradition that keeps church and world quite separate, the question of lines is a very important one. This is the email I sent;

“When it comes to the question of how far we step into a less-than-holy world we need take our direction from what Jesus did via the incarnation.

If a perfect and holy God could go as far as he did – taking on a mortal frame, touching the unclean, becoming a friend of sinners – then couldn’t we do the same? But we’re not Christ! But Jesus did say we’d ‘do greater things’ than him because he is going to the Father (Jn 14:12). But we fall short and are more susceptible to temptation. But Jesus was just as susceptible to sin as we are, wasn’t he? He was fully human and tempted in every way just as we are (Heb 4:15). The reason he didn’t sin was because of his perfect connection to his Father (not because he couldn’t sin). Jesus didn’t do a thing apart from the will of his Father in heaven (Jn 6:38) and it was this ‘will-alignment-submission’ that kept him in a safe, confident and connected place thus enabling him to engage the unholy without fear… no, better than that, with perfect love.

So then, it begs the question, “Is the reason we’re afraid to enter into unholy places an indictment of our lack of connection to our Father?” And what does Jesus’ ability to go anywhere and touch and talk to anybody, say about the humility and dependence we’d need to do the same? Sometimes I wonder if Jesus carried a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ as he engaged broken people and circumstances. And could it be that living into a constant awareness of ‘there but for your grace go I” is exactly what we need to engage a broken world; and even conquer our own sinful natures? What if being an incarnating presence in broken places, being as totally humble as Jesus was, in perfect submission, ever aware of your susceptibility to sin, but trusting God anyways, is the only way for us to gain a foothold over our sinful natures? What if the bigger risk to our personal holiness is not engaging?

Of course, none of us can do that perfectly (in all circumstances). But what if, as we began to discuss in class, we collectively can? Maybe that’s the answer we need to consider when it comes to drawing lines. What if each of us has been given freedom and liberty to engage different parts of our broken world, but none of us has the freedom and liberty to engage them all? To some the gift of bringing light to Gangsta rap, to others the gift of reaching out to Game of Thrones fans, to another the gift of… It seems to me that this might be God’s best way to reach out to all, while still honouring our call to be holy.

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Discerning post. Thank you for sending that email. I am sure it led to considerable discussion at your students' dinner table that evening. 

With my own children already grown and on their own, I nevertheless tried to imagine myself having that conversation around our dinner table. But in my imagination the tension point was not about where to draw the line, but about how to draw the line.

The easy part is to say: "If you feel led by God to go there, go there. If not, don't go there."

The hard part comes after you have decided not to go there, and someone asks: "Why would you not go there?" Again, the easy answer would be: "I did not feel led by God to go there". And it might even be true. Let's assume it is.

But then I imagined the next question: "What's so bad about those people that God would not want you to go there? Are those people beyond redemption? Does God not love those people? Are we too good to be around those people? Is that situation too dangerous for God to protect us?"

And then I imagined the conversation to quickly turn into a cesspool of comparing .. and judging ... and assuming ..... and labeling ......, and diminishing .......... and belittling ............ and disrespecting.............. and generalizing ................ and pretty soon we are all praying: "thank you Lord that you did not make me like so-and-so..." and asking God to "...please, protect us from the likes of so-and-so."

And pretty soon it is us, "the holy ones" vs "them", the evil ones. And if part of our calling is to fight evil, we may as well start by fighting "them", those wicked servants of the devil. 

And one step further down the road, I hear myself urging my kids to vote Conservative, because, surely, we don't want to engage those infidels without adequate weapons to take them out.......

And then I imagined hearing God speaking through my kids, around the table, when they say: "Don't go there, Dad"

Yes, we need to have those conversations around the dinner table.

The problem of sin and temptation is very complex and the "Christian" solution is simply a logical inference that assumes that Jesus had no mental abilities that humans did not have and access to no knowledge that humans did not have and, I suppose, no special directions from the Holy Spirit that, for example, my Guardian Angel could not give to me. The amazing conclusion might be that Jesus might have known he was a prophet but did not know he was God?

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