I spent two days last week listening to my favorite seminary professor, friend, bog Irishman and mentor, Dr. Billy Abraham from Perkins School of Theology. I was his research assistant one year, which is actually a glorified title for travel/booking agent, secretary, and general flunky. Since I also was his alter ego for his correspondence, I learned to “channel my inner Abraham.” Fifteen years later, I can still easily pierce through his Irish dialect, which for others is as heavy as a stout pair of brogues handed down from their granddaddy’s closet. “Faith” for Billy has three syllables, just as the Holy Trinity has three persons.
Billy is a resident alien in these parts, since he is an Irish citizen, but even if he were a naturalized American citizen, my guess is he wouldn’t consider himself a citizen of this world, for as a Christian “our citizenship is from heaven, and it is from there we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).
In this world we have many nations, both rich and poor. In these, there are rich who live in the poorest nations and very poor people who live in the rich nations such as our own. I speak here only of economics, for some of those who are financially poor are richer spiritually than those who have great wealth, for they understand their lives depend upon God’s providence and mercy, and not on their own strength and position for gain.
Those who are caught up in the spirit of this world are beset by the cares of this world and focus on these problems. They see no hope for change, no way out of the status quo. They are “hopeless” people, for the spirit of the world can’t offer hope, but only more of the same. This is why “the Hunger Games” and its dystopian view of the future has captured the attention of our youth. They see it as a possible future, for they live without hope. Their generation’s symbol is the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11/01.
As I was chatting with my Walgreen’s photo clerk the other day, she said, “Your parents fought to make the world safe for democracy, and people your age put a man on the moon. Our generation hadn’t seen anything grand or positive happen. We’ve been at war most of our lives, mostly “against something”, but never “for anything.” It’s like we have lost our will to do any great deeds as a country. We can’t even be “for peace, for ecological sanity or for whatever!” The spirit of this world is negativity in all its aspects.
Jesus said, “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own” (John 15:19). Those who walk on another path don’t belong to the spirit of this world, even though they live in this world, for they have received the Spirit of God. This isn’t some special gift, reserved only for a few extraordinary persons, but it’s the gift of God to each and every believer! How are we to know God if we aren’t joined to him in a spiritual manner? We aren’t able to use our minds alone, for “no human mind can grasp this, and who can comprehend his ways?” Our mind is part of this world, but not part of the spiritual world (Ecclesiastes 16:20).
Once we have our own experiences with God, we can test them against the experiences of the saints of the church (tradition), the witness of Scripture, and the reason of our minds. We will never understand God with our minds only, but we will also never understand God only by our human experience or by the tradition of others either, or just by reading about God from the Bible. Because God is a personal God, whom we know as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we need to experience God in relationship, for our spirit communicates with God’s Holy Spirit. When we experience God, we experience hope, life, and love.
We aren’t able to hear the sounds of hopelessness in the world unless we too have also known no hope. When I met this worker at the photo counter, we got into this discussion because another customer was admiring my iPhone 4S photos and compared them to my 35mm Minolta black body camera photos. Because there’s nothing automatic on my 40 year old camera, I have to think and compose my photo before I shoot. She particularly admires the two trees winter stark against a blue sky. This photo was one of a series I took of trees that stood naked, ready to bloom once spring began, I was reading Brian D. McLauren’s Naked Spirituality at the time. It reminded her of the Twin Towers in New York City, the symbol of her generation’s loss and communal grief. She is my daughter’s age, part of Gen Y or the “Millenniums.” They are the first Internet generation, so technology is a necessity in their life. They may be wired into the world, but they have no intelligible vocabulary or theological framework from which to make a coherent and positive sense of the world.
They are “Saturday’s children, but they aren’t in Sunday School,” for as a group, these young people are deeply suspicious of tradition. I suspect that even if they were in a church they would find that the gospel there has been watered down to what Billy Abraham calls a “civil religion” or “God, the flag, private enterprise, and the fourth of July.” Upon finding this worldly gospel within the church, they would turn and leave, and rightly so, for why get out of bed early on Sunday if they aren’t going to hear a different message from the world they are in the other six days of the week? They are hungry, but they aren’t finding nourishment in our “fast food churches” these days.
To make coherent sense of this world, we have to have a worldview that is focused on God, for only then will we understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. Our primary gift is “prophecy, in proportion to faith” (Romans 12:6). This isn’t some two bit foretelling of the future, but a vigorous listening to God’s word, an active calling of God’s people back to God’s love, and the announcing of God’s judgment if we fail to return or God’s mercy if we repent and return.
Too often we have made the gospel a cheap one-armed bandit, putting our quarters in and hoping for the three cherries to hit the jackpot of prosperity. Other times we have made the good news a shackle to bind people by laws and restrictions instead of freeing tem to become fully human and fully holy in the grace of God. We who claim the name of Christ have failed to articulate the good news so that our children and grandchildren can hear us! Why is that? Could it be that we actually practice a less robust religion, the civil religion in which we nod to the flag, to the country, to the rule of law, and to a creator God, but we do not give our whole lives over to the one Lord who can transform all that we are into more than we can ever imagine! Our children deserve the Bread of Life!
“I Can Only Imagine” is a wonderful song—you can download it from iTunes if you don’t already have it. Although it’s about “heaven,” it could be about the new creation. Imagine your vision of a better world: describe it in positive terms rather than negative ones (we are at peace, rather than there is no war). If your idea is that all will have enough to eat, find a food pantry or soup kitchen and volunteer for a day to put a face on hunger in this present world. Make a difference in the part of the world in which you live. This is hands on spirituality or the spirituality of praxis.
As a creative project, write a poem or story, photograph, or place colors on a canvas about your experience. If you are photoing people, ask permission first, for not everyone wants their image used. Colors tell the story of your experience. You don’t have to make a realistic image, but your colors and shapes/lines should reflect your inner emotions. This may be harder than it sounds.
Joy and Peace, Cornelia