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Christianity and The Challenge of the Hour

When the early American settlers and later colonists first arrived on the North American scene, we stepped on the shores during the 15th and 16th centuries facing a massive, unexplored, and what appeared to be, an infinite landscape covered with bright green vegetation and tall thick wood available  for the taking (forgetting about the priority of ownership of its ancient inhabitants to our shame).  We quickly got to work, trying to tame the vast wilderness and organize ourselves into a coherent society.  

Various systems of self government were attempted in these early years, even an attempt of a pseudo-feudal system in Catholic Maryland within the 17th century.  Yet, none of it lasted or survived.  Engraved on the endless trees, acres, and fieldss that spread for millions of acres was the truly American reality of opportunity - opportunity for you.  If you were not content with the organization of your community, you could simply slip away to the West and figure life out on your own.  Top down authority always seemed to slip away in our wild land.

The land and its people became ripe for the Great Awakening to sweep through.  Delving into this early American culture, we wanted freedom and individuality, and it finally found its expression with the fields of George Whitfield as he preached outside the institutional church pulpit.  The early Americans flocked to hear him, pushed aside catholic and protestant authority structures, and began to embrace a personal response and relationship to Jesus Christ that was not dependent on clergy to be the guiding force of that new found relationship - but rather self.  It fit hand in glove with our land.  

It is hard to estimate just how powerful the connection between land, theology and politics was in those early years of America.  It is equally difficult to measure its impact on future generations.  Yet here we are, flowers of the seeds from those years perennially blossomed over many seasons and generations.  

The American spirit rolled on and somewhat evolved over the centuries.  Although things are different today within the Christian Church than in times past, we still retain the American spirit of the prominence of the individual.  Our land shaped us, along with our faith.  And in 2019, we have a Christianity that in many ways is reflective of the times - for good and for bad - because we are still beig shaped by our land.  

SHAPED BY THE HABITUAL LIFE

The modern Christian is not institutionally ritualistic, at least in the Christian sense.  The modern evangelical church has been carried along with most habits of today that do not make space for the practice of Christian worship.  We consider much of what fills our schedules as neutral, and are shaped by our calendars, rather than us shaping our calendars. We’ve forgotten the connection points of land with its people - of culture with its geography, of time with is participant.  Or, better yet, we have not been made aware of them.  Habits train and shape us, and our land and society forces certain habits on us.  Much of evangelical Christianity has rejected liturgy and ritual, and the need has only been filled by secular institutions, leading to the danger of us being shaped by our society rather than us creating an alternate way of life within it.

As the American Church shrinks, as thousands of years of traditions are left behind for Sunday morning soccer games and skateboarding lessons, we are left scratching our heads, wondering “how did this happen?  What led to this?”  Tens of millions of Americans identify with Christ.  Christianity remains the majority while we live the influence of a minority.  All the while, looking at ourselves, we realize that we have all played a part in this demise - perhaps unknowingly.

We drive back to our homes, built to be your house, built to keep others out, and wonder why we do not know our neighbors as we should.  Our fences are taller than ourselves, and only with flexed calves and a tipped toed stance can we peak over to see the forehead of our next door neighbors who stands feet away saying hello, yet we wonder why we don’t share empathy with them - or even know their stories or their last name.

We do not really have a central vision of Jesus’ work for the world, and have mistaken such important tasks of cultivating the true, good and beautiful to humankind, of bringing justice to the poor as widow, of saving humans from themselves as belonging to political parties and figures - salvation being wrought in the voting booths rather than the pews. The Church shrinks and shrinks, yet we carry on with our holidays and periods of rest mostly centered not on our spiritual condition or the God who made us, yet with celebrations of military remembrance or nationalistic pride (holidays, or what used to be called - holy-days), forgetting when Pentecost occurred or having no Epiphany of that ancient season.

Jesus, who came down from heaven, sought to bring glimpses of that heaven to earth through his life, death and resurrection for his people. His mission was to begin a new creation, a new humankind, here and now, to be fcompleted in the final Day of his return. Such a life, beginning in simple faith, was to be carried on through the upmost of thought and intentionality, filled with the highest joys, with the expectation that we may follow in the footsteps of our suffering Messiah.  For centuries this was the case.  Today, this is the case for many of our brothers and sisters around the world.  To enter into the sorrow of the world with the Good News of Christ has never left the Church without its own pierced hands and feet.

In America, though, it is easy to give much thought and study to Christianity, find our joy in Christ, yet surround ourselves with the America habits of comfort and security, pushing away the more messy and difficult parts of Jesus’ calling.   

FORGETTING OUR COMMUNITIES

Generations that have not seen world war easily forget the truly frail condition of humanity.  We loose sight of the true value of things that are in our daily grasp without fear of them being lost.  We are not aware of our fragility, or even really aware of our communities.  A natural self-awareness comes when everyone has a son, daughter, niece or nephew, father or mother, who didn’t make it home from the battlefield.  A community becomes aware of what was lost.  Everyone is in it together.

But now, many in our nation are not safe from the horrors of life.  Within our own neighborhoods, people languish beneath addiction, internal strife, broken families and mental illness and the like.  It is not as if we do not care; I do not believe that is the problem.  Rather, the way our society is structured is this:  unless you place yourself in the path of your neighbors, intentionally building a door through the fence or bringing over a hot meal on a cold day - by the natural habits of the American life you will not know their plight, but only your own.  War is hell; but the wonders of peacetime also comes with its challenges.   

All in all, we live in a drastically segmented, compartmentalized America that wants you to think about you, and not us.  Our homes act as a safe haven from the world where most of what you need is within your four walls.  As suffering abounds in our communities, many of us lay our heads on our pillow, not with hard hearts of stone, but with ignorance of what surrounds us.  

The Church has and must be the ones who carry on the vision of the world that is indeed concerned with others, and their awareness of God, their sin, and their need of help.  A vision that is indeed concerned with the true nature of beauty and virtue in Christ, the value of black, yellow, and dark skinned people alongside the white and red, all who carry the image of God, and thus carry infinite value.  The Church is the holders of a world treasure that has the potential to break and burst bonds of oppression, to bring the world the good news of its available salvation in the God who entered into its reality.

THE MESSAGE OF THE INCARNATION

The central message of Christianity is of Jesus, who had all true forms of authority and sovereign power and acumen over this universe, sitting on the throne in all joy, bliss and peace, choosing to leave such a heaven and enter into human flesh.  He left that joyful place and became the suffering man of sorrows.  Thus, the central teaching of Christianity is just that: leaving your own comfort and entering into the sorrows of others, all for the sake of Jesus and spreading the Good News that he came to reverse their sorrows and give them hope.  It is this that in modern times is most easy not to do. 

In fact, most of our society and its current structures habituates us to care for self, and not for others.  Without severe intentionality, we can turn Christianity inward, the same aim as every commercial or every billboard.  Although Jesus came to save you, he more importantly came to save us.  American doesn’t have a place for such a message.  But the Church should be the ones making the space for it.  

INHERITING WHAT IS LEFT IN THE AMERICAN WEST

The remainder of the baby boomer Christianity, the Billy Graham era, the last recipients of the Jesus’ movement that left the East and West costs stunned at the freaks being baptized on its shores, will be handed over to my generation soon.  Its buildings, is heritage, its influence - for good or for bad, as every generation of Christians have both to provide.

Knowing some of the central challenges of being a Christian as we continue on in the 21st century, the question remains - what will we do with it?  Is this our last chance of carrying on a dimly lit torch that flickers from the ashes of generations past?  Will Christianity survive the oncoming years in our American nation?  

Two thousand years has taught us one thing: nothing can stop the Church from storming the gates of hell.  Constantinople’s ancient stronghold of faith has been snuffed for centuries.  Istanbul now has only old echoes of Jesus’ name on the walls of its historic buildings and towers.  Yet, Christianity spread on elsewhere.  Is that our future here?  Will America become the new Istanbul, while Christianity expands in the southern continents?  I don’t know.  Yet for the next generation, my generation, we are receiving what has gone before us.  It is our duty to receive it with joy and thanksgiving, respecting those who labored for it.  Yet, as remains the task for every generation, we also must seek to improve upon it.  

My plea is that in the years to come that we do not merely accept what is given to us, but with thankfulness, prayer, and Spirit-filled passion, intellect, faithfulness and creativity, carry the torch well into the 21st century America in fresh newness.  We have not yet seen the demise of the American Church.  It is never too late to stand on our Areopagus and share the Good News to virgin ears of faith, an audience that is quickly increasing in our nation.  Failures may be followed by successes in endeavors for Jesus and his Church, at times difficult, combination of both.  But we move forward, asking his Spirit to do the very things that our feeble efforts could never accomplish.  We anticipate the future final victory of Christ that overshadows all current wins and losses, and that fuels us with hardened chins of flint to push forward, even if we are also forced to carry our own cross.  

Christianity will never flame out.  And it’s not too late for it to fade in our nation.