About four years ago, I had a major life change. I retired. I moved to a new area and became involved in an urban church. My vision of retirement included writing and teaching at a college or perhaps a church. I thought it was a good plan, but it seems that when God got my proposal he just rolled his eyes and laughed.
Learning to be retired - especially for a country mouse trying to be a city mouse - has been difficult, but not without benefits. Our church is nearly half refugees and immigrants, and it's nice to know there are refugee kids, new to America, who consider me their grandpa, and who look to me for help and advice.
The experience, however, has also raised some questions in my mind. A central one concerns how to define Christian. Just who is a Christian? Many of the refugees I know say they are Christians. And listening to their words and watching their lives, I have no doubt that some are. But listening to the words and watching the lives of others leaves me torn: I want to believe their words, but their lives say something else.
In this, they are not different from millions of others in America, folks walking the streets of our cities and identifying themselves as Christians. Too often, like my refugee friends, their lives say something different.
Part of the problem is the balance of culture and scripture. Proper application of scripture will be transformational, meaningful and life-giving in any culture. The gospel does not depend on culture. However, too often we let culture judge the Bible, rather than vice versa. Culture becomes the deciding factor in how the Bible is understood, and how we understand Christianity. Culture determines our behavior and beliefs.
As a result, "Christian" becomes something utterly foreign to what the Bible teaches. To most evangelical American Christians, for example, a "good Christian" is one who lives a "clean" life - not too much drinking, smoking or swearing, and no obvious domestic abuse or violence. There was once a funny saying, "I don't drink, cuss, smoke or chew, or go with girls who do." Now that would have to be changed: "I don't drink, cuss, smoke or chew - too much."
What is a Christian? Better, what is a follower of Jesus?
The New Testament has much to say about followers of Jesus. Children of light, it calls them. Little Christs. A called-out, sent-in people: Jesus said he was sending his followers - that includes us - just as the Father had sent him. He said we were authorized to act and speak in his name, on his behalf.
He said the world will know we are his followers because we love each other as he loves us. Followers of Jesus grow to love Jesus, and gradually make him the center of their lives.
To be a follower of Jesus is to be called to a new life, in a new creation. It is to be part of a resurrection people, proclaiming new life in Jesus.
That's a far cry from being a nice guy, or from defining your actions by saying, "That's our way. It's how we do things." Even if the Bible clearly says otherwise.
I pray for an outpouring of God's Spirit among my friends. I pray that the power of the Spirit would burst upon them, changing lives, setting people free from an old and deadening culture.
I pray that they would see Jesus, and know the rich, full life that Jesus has for them.
And I pray that same prayer for my church and many other friends.