Thursday, July 23, 2015

Thriving in Babylon: A Title and a Challenge

Larry Osborne is a pastor from Oceanside, California that I've known since the late 1980s. He has led a solid church ministry in northern San Diego County, but it is his books that have really challenged me, especially the titles. They are such good titles, and they set you up for a great experience reading his books. 

His book on getting people connected in and committed to a body of believers? Sticky Church.

His book on what happens when our "standards" become too important to our Christianity at the expense of grace? Accidental Pharisees.

But his latest may be his best title yet (can't say about the book because I just got it). It is using the life of Daniel to learn about how those who love God can live, serve, and prosper even in a culture that stands for all the wrong things. It calls for "hope, humility, and wisdom." The title is Thriving in BabylonThe book is certainly timely, because of its subject matter. But that title just grabs hold of me, almost making me shout "That's it! That's what we need to do!" I don't know that there ever was truly a "Christian America"--in fact, I'm pretty sure there never was. But there was a time when America and Americans took most of their cues on the nature of life, right and wrong, the value of human life, the definitions of human relationships, and more, from biblical understandings. After all, all men being "created equal" doesn't stem from evolutionary thought, atheism, or rationalism. I know we are not the "morality police," but Christian faith has been the "morality source" for the underpinnings of the nation. It was that niggling "all men are created equal" that was the impetus for the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, and a few other good things.

Those days are gone. Forever. Don't assume the next election will change it all back. It won't. We are, as another book title from decades ago put it, Slouching Towards Gomorrah. Christians have always been "strangers and aliens" in this world, but in America, an illusion developed that because our values had shaped the nation's founding in so many ways, we would always have a better culture and an easier way in the world. No more. 

Unlike Daniel and his friends, we have not been carried off into captivity. Instead, we have had the true nature of being exiles made clear as the glossy curtains of America's civic Christianity have been ripped down. It's taken long enough that the coming generation has no real memory of it being different, but historically, the pace of the change has been breathtaking.

So America isn't the promised land. It is Babylon. A powerful nation with dangerous rivals who would eventually overthrow it, Babylon was not a friendly place for Jewish faith to thrive, and to do so as a captive carried off to serve in the palace would be even harder. But Daniel and his friends decided that a hostile environment didn't change the truth from God or the power of God to accomplish the will of God. When they could seek accommodation (in their diet for example), they did. When they could serve (interpreting a dream or serving in administration), they did. And when they couldn't compromise and needed to trust God (as in not worshiping an image on pain of death), they did. And they didn't just survive--they thrived. They made a difference and an impact. And they did so with no guarantees that it would all turn out for them. Even though it did, as Osborne says, they were "exceptions, not examples."

America is a powerful nation with dangerous enemies, and it is not necessarily a place that fosters faith or faithful obedience to God. It seems to have become (or is certainly on its way to becoming) another Babylon--not in the biblical prophecy in Revelation sense, but in its increasing opposition to God and His Word. Yet, many of God's people in Babylon managed to do so much more than just survive. It wasn't just Daniel and his friends. Whole communities of captives in Babylon kept the faith alive. Synagogues were born in Babylon, and biblical scholarship among Jews actually flourished--one of the great copies of their laws was called "the Babylonian Talmud" because it developed there. Many were able to thrive, because they didn't forget God, and they knew he had not forgotten them.

That's what we Christians need to do. We need to decide to thrive. It doesn't matter what the culture may adopt next, or whether we won't be popular or respected or tax exempt! We know our God, and he hasn't forgotten us or lost control of his plan. And because we are still here and the end hasn't come, there is still the opportunity to bear witness to truth and know that our witness and fruitfulness can thrive. So, let's do this. Let's not back off what we believe, but let's stop being surprised that others don't believe it. Let's expect iniquity to abound--these are, after all, the last days. But let's remember that when sin abounds, grace still abounds much more. Let's believe that God may be making the lines between truth and lies clearer, and pushing those who claim to know him to show where they stand. Let's believe that some pressure (and maybe some persecution) is going to be the catalyst for cleansing and empowering God's people. And let's thrive, like the faithful Jews in Babylon, or like the church just after Stephen was killed, or like believers in China for the past sixty years.

(Oh, and maybe you'll want to read the book, too. You can order it here. I haven't finished so I can't offer a full endorsement yet, but I like what I've seen so far.)