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Jul 13, 2004


Scott Vermillion

Tim, to find the Holy at home in the secular is a challenge that shakes my soul. So what did Jesus talk about at those parties that sinners threw for him? What jokes did he laugh at? How much wine was he invited to drink at those shin-digs?

These questions, and your article, make me take another look at grace to see if I really get it or not. It seems that I am most apt to draw the dividing line between the secular and sacred when grace is diluted by my "good works."

For example, when I first became a Christian, I understood my absolute poverty in Spirit. There was nothing I could offer. I was caught living my life for myself, and I came to Jesus with profound humility. Yet, as I began to "grow in the grace of God," that need for grace diminished. I had acumulated some good deeds over that period of time. I am tempted to look back at the times when the Spirit used me for the Kingdom as times I contributed something to the cause of God, not as mercy applied specifically through me. In these moments, what I think I need is a little dusting off, but others need a complete makeover. This separation of the sacred and secular in my mind as applied to me is in direct correlation to my understanding of grace.

When I am undone by God's mercy applied to me, I begin to see a new world where God is sovereign and moving his purposes about despite my intentions, actions or misgivings. The presence of God in my life at these moments supercedes any categories that I have contrived to don myself with sainthood and others as evil doers. I recognize the harsh reality that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," but am captivated by the wonder of God's choosing such a man as me for his purposes.

As a result of grace applied in my life, I can't help but see the world as God's canvas with which he paints his artwork of grace. In the secular and sacred, God lives and reigns and reveals his glory with me helpless but to look on in worship. But when grace is diluted, I find myself thinking through categories of who's in and who's out.

Tim Conder

Scott, those are wonderful thoughts applied personally in a manner that is helpful for all of us to read. Sady, I believe we do so much ministry with "who's in and who's out" as the starting point. In doing so, we are dulled to work of God in our culture (assuming that this a battleground or mission field rather than the canvas of a loving God). We are also tempted to see ourselves as so much more than recipients of God's grace. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

Daryl Porter

Your note hits so many notes I find critical to the Christian journey... certainly my journey. A dear friend of mine wrote a song that I think is worth listening to some time. Here are the lyrics of the chorus:

We are just beggars
Who found the source of bread
Leading beggars
To where they can be fed
And if they watch us long enough
I'm sure that they will find
We are just beggars who are fed
By someone who is kind

Buried in the song is the epic quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (preach the gospel continuously using words only when absolutely
necessary). This was absolutely crucial in helping me to see past the kind of rhetoric you are talking about to realize that there was something profound sitting behind the strident Christians I kept running into.

One of my favorite books is Learning the Language of Babylon: Changing the World by Engaging the Culture by
Terry Crist. Early in the book he challenges the sacred/secular dichotomy with a
quote from That You May Propser by Ray Sutton:

"There are no sacred/profane categories
inherent in creation. The original garden had zones that were nearer to and further away from God, but everything everywhere was sacred.
Corporate man, male and female, was to spread culture. What is culture? "Culture" comes from cultus, meaning worship. Thus we are ... to
transform the world into a place of worship, and thereby create true culture ... [We are ] making soceity into a proper place to worship God."

The book went on to introduce me to Daniel in a way I had never encountered before: The ultimate transformer of culture through engagement. Reading this book got me so pumped up to go to work every day realizing that I could worship God through absolutely everything I engage in. If Daniel could further God's plan while holding the position of "chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners" (Daniel 5:11) surely I could as a software engineer!

This led me to create (with a seminary professor friend) a small movie ministry in which we walked through the text Faith and Film by Bryan Stone. There is no more fascinating introduction to the idea of faith, witness and testimony than the film Contact by the rather well-known atheist Carl Sagan. There are so many movies that show the work of the Spirit if we let them... The Last Samurai shows me a culture that aches with Christian imagery and parallels: The Samurai are servants of the living god who battle for good against evil. I haven't recently seen a more poignant portrayal of faith than the episode of 24 in which the Roman Catholic Gael is given the opportunity to end his own suffering but chooses to fight on to the very last.

My family moved to this area less than a year ago and I long to participate in a community lovingly searching out and rejoicing in a sovereign God's activity in the culture we find all around us!

Travis Bott

Tim, thanks for your stimulating thoughts on an important topic. I certainly agree that we should reject the sacred-secular dichotomy as a seductive and destructive story told by the Enlightenment Project (and Enlightenment Christians). I agree that this notion is hopelessly complicated by the realization that the realm of the “sacred” is always compromised by ungodly influences, and that the Spirit is always at work in the realm of the “secular.” Christians know God as the creator of a very good universe; all of life is lived before this God.

However, I also think that the dichotomy should be rejected because of the myth of objectivity that goes along with it. Thus, I’m not sure that, in the end, we can manage to stand above positive and negative evaluations. In biblical categories, God has called us into a war of worldviews between the Kingdom of Darkness and the Kingdom of Light, between Babylon and the New Jerusalem. It seems to me that this is a dichotomy that the church cannot afford to neglect.

Owen Meany may be a Christ-figure when viewed through the lenses of Scripture and Christian tradition, but I’m not sure that his character would have the same significance when plugged into another system with another set of correspondences (I confess that I haven't read the book, but I think that my point stands.). I agree that we can utilize common cultural symbols to tell the gospel story, but we must not forget simultaneously to introduce a new system, a new kind of meta-culture, which takes up that symbol and resignifies it. We must not forget to engage in war-time catechesis.

Your thoughts also raise for me some of the dangers of such a conception. We must remember that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Eph 6). In other words, the church is not at odds with the people outside itself, but with the satanic structures of meaning that entrap them. Moreover, we are not to resort to violent forms of coercion, but we must face the challenge armed with God's word and defended with faith. Finally, it seems to me that we must constantly interrogate ourselves to see if we have failed to "stand firm" in the face of the onslaught.

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