Last week a friend asked me how I was transitioning back to the U.S. For those of you who may not know, I spent the last two years living in Oxford, England with my wife and three pixie-daughters.
"We're fine," I said. "It's taken some time for me to get back into the swing of the U.S."
Our pace of life is forever changed. So it's difficult to deal with the pressure to "Go!"
But more than that, we return to deep political and spiritual divisions. Our country is more divided than ever. We watched from afar as racial tensions rose to a fever pitch.
We returned to what seems like a divided church: progressives and conservatives. Social issues threaten to fracture the church in unprecedented ways, and even foreign affairs seem to be dividing us.
Now, with the rise of ISIS religious tensions soar as the chaos of fear and blood-thirst polarize our nation and the world. We left a few years ago only to return to not only a changed country but a changed world.
So, the question for my family as we re-enter the U.S. is really the same question for us all: As Christians, how do we live?
How Do We Live?
I don't have a ten-step guide to living in this maddened beautiful world. But I do offer this reflection. There's a second (or third) century document in the early church known as "The Letter to Diognetus: The Mystery of the New People."
The letter begins, "For the Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.
"Although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth."
What is this "extraordinary constitution" of our own commonwealth. It's the business of heaven--that is our commonwealth. I am here, in Charlotte. I pop down to Harris Teeter for groceries, to Lowes for Christmas lights, and I vote when I can. All the while, leaving trails of heaven behind: my consumptive habits, my online interaction, my thoughts on politics. All should be dripping with heaven--representative of The Way.
The letter continues, "They live in their own countries, but only as aliens.They have a share in every thing as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like every one else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed."
You get the sense that the early Christians did not live entitled lives. They had no internet to bolster their egos, to falsely empower their agendas, or rip on others who did not agree with them. Their humility, morality, and service was otherworldly. They lived as people not owed a debt, but rather as servants.
"They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted.
"They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance.
"They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect."
The early Christians received an affront with grace, honoring the person casting the insult. The striking nature of their humility confounds me. It is a posture of complete grace. A grace that carries a mysterious power. It does not look for justification to lash out in a public forum. Rather, it looks for a way to give blessing in the face of slander.
And lest we think that this way of living is just for the Christian to the un-Christian world, John the Beloved reminds us that the world will know us by how we love one another, Christian love for fellow Christians.
The letter concludes, "When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life.
"They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity.
"To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world."
The early Christians were found to be vital to society precisely because of their extraordinary constitution type of living. They brought heaven to earth. They were the soul of the world. What an indicting testimony to the 21st century church.
U.S. Christianity's Inward Bent
In some of my research I came across an interesting line from the great popular philosopher Taylor Swift. In a Cover Girl interview she said, "Unique and different is the new generation of beautiful."
Swift's remarks reveal a cultural shift. For centuries beauty was that which extended beyond a person or thing. It was a quality that lay in the beyond. It was that sense of transcendence we sense while looking at a mountainscape or blistering sunrise.
Unique and different indicate beauty's shift from being outward focused, beyond the self, to the inward--completely focused on self-expression.
I think beauty's shift mirrors contemporary Christianity. What used to be outward focused, has turned in on itself. In another way, you can say that it's not only mirrored beauty's bending, but it has itself lost its beauty.
The beauty of Christianity was its ability to focus on the transcendent while remaining in the temporal world. But in our age, Christianity has taken on what Oxford writer and philosopher Roger Scruton calls the postmodern desecration. We've taken the sacred and made it profane--that being the focus of self over the divine.
The provocateur is the new artist. The opinion column writer becomes a gospel writer. Consensus dictates truth. Our rhetoric has spiraled out of control.
We've lost our beauty because we've lost our way. We do not reach upward, but bend in on ourselves. And here we sit, a mangled distorted caricature of our past self. The church distorted. The Christian egomaniac.
What will fix us?
I believe it does not begin with unplugging, and retreating into our hobbit holes (though I'm tempted!). I think it first begins with reflection--have we forgotten the art of reflection?--on a few concepts germane to Christianity.
First, surrender. This is the giving up of what we want and the giving over of our wills to Christ's. When contemplating surrender I ask myself, "Is God's Word over me? Do I submit to his will as expressed through is Word?"
Surrender demands honest evaluation of our current posture. Am I being a jerk? Am I condescending? Do I employ snark and cynicism in public discourse to get my name heard?
Second, love. This is a mixture of eros and agape. Christianity blooms when we discover not only our wills but our desire aligns with God's. Eros pulls us into intimacy with the Almighty. But eros fails to go beyond desire.
Christianity blooms when the Christian expresses agape--a counter-cultural form of love. A dying love. A love given over to another in spite of everything: failure, loss, betrayal, lies, deceit, death. Christian love resounds, but not in word. Rather, in acts of humiliation.
I love you so much that even though I am justified in saying such-and-such, even though I deserve your apology, even though, even though, I will spread my arms on this cross and die. Because I love you, my acts lay humble at your feet.
Third, beauty. If beauty points us beyond our selves, then how can my life embody such a beauty? Beauty ties itself to love because both release claims to self gain.
The beautiful Christian finds strength in silence.
The beautiful Christian finds peace in surrender.
The beautiful Christian finds glory in restraint.
The beautiful Christian finds wisdom in the humble search.
The beautiful Christian finds joy in vitality of the moment.
Perhaps, one day, we can yet again be viewed as the soul of the world. Right now, though, we should do our best to rediscover our own souls.
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Tim's authored four books, including the children's book Shine So Bright and the critically acclaimed Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society. He studied beauty in the works of C.S. Lewis for his PhD under Alister McGrath. When he's not scratching poetry, or chasing the scholar's craft, you can find him carving up the trails of the nearest national forest on his Salsa El Mariachi 29er.
He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and three pixie-daughters, and two acres of Great Horned Owls.