Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The new New York

by Mary Frances Giles

I grew up in the beautiful city of Chattanooga, TN, a medium sized town surrounded by mountains with the Tennessee River winding right through the middle. It's not called the "scenic city" for nothing. In the past 15 years, Chattanooga has seen an amazing renaissance as the entire downtown has been revitalized. The city planners have done an amazing job, and for a while it seemed that Chattanooga was getting all kinds of press - the cover of 'Outside' magazine, the New York Times, and the Rosie O'Donnell show, just to name a few. Around this time, a friend made an offhand (and sarcastic) remark about how Chattanooga was really becoming "the new New York". I thought this was hysterical, and totally latched on to the monniker. I started using this phrase so much that my family quickly adopted it, as have many of my friends. When I returned from a recent visit there, several people asked me, "so, how was the new New York?" I even had "I [heart] the new NY" tshirts made for my parents and sister.

But here's the thing: Chattanooga is nothing like New York. At all. I mean, both places have streets paved with asphalt, but that's really where the similarities end. If someone had no knowledge of Chattanooga or even Tennessee, they might falsely believe that Chattanooga is in many ways very much like New York (assuming they were unable to pick up on the sarcastic tone in my voice!).

So what in the world does this have to do with Leviticus?

In one of his recent posts, Brian wrote: "What occurs to me is that living by the letter of Law can be hollow and feel mechanical ... but the danger of living by the spirit is that one can get focused on trampling on God's process (as someone said, I treat God as if he's MY friend rather than being HIS friend) eventually seeking unfair justifications for one's behaviors or actions ... Are we as North American Christians of the 21st century in Boston worshiping in both 'spirit and in truth'?"

I think this is a great question. In my opinion, the modern church in America has really cornered the market on worshiping in spirit, but we're not quite making the grade when it comes to the truth part. Obviously there thousands of great churches out there preaching the "truth", but after digging into Leviticus for a measly 9 days, it's really gotten me realizing that there is a whole side to God that I just don't hear about or think about on a daily basis or even on Sundays. God was HOLY. And JUST. And JEALOUS. And ANGRY. Part of the reason that Daniel even initiated this crazy project is because most Christians don't read/know/contemplate/believe the book of Leviticus, not to mention the rest of the Old Testament.

You don't have to look much farther than the evening news in an election year to realize that people have taken God's word and distorted it for their own gain. To Brian's point, how much have we used God and his story to unfairly justify our own sinful beliefs and self-serving behavior? Grace is an amazing gift, one that I am becoming ever more thankful for every minute I spend living Levitically. But have we grossly misused or underestimated this gift (see Nick's description of children receiving gifts on Christmas morning) in order to just live the way we want to? And in that, what are we communicating to non-believers?

It is easy to point to particular individuals, churches, or organizations who are so clearly guilty of using grace as an excuse to run rampant with their own agendas. It is easy to look at them and think "oh, I would NEVER do that", but the past 9 days have showed me that, yes, I do. Every day. Maybe my selfish ambition and unfair justifications aren't as obvious as those of others, but they are there just the same.

In Deuteronomy we are told "man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord." (8:3) Yep, that's in Deuteronomy. Before today, I thought that was strictly a NT verse. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says "we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God" (4:2). Clearly he wasn't talking about me...

So I am left wondering - in the same way that I have (albeit facetiously) repackaged the beautiful scenic city of Chattanooga, TN into "the new New York", complete with a tshirt to prove it, how have I repackaged God's message for the world into some form of "Christianity lite" so that at the end of the day the gospel isn't quite so offensive and I still appear "cool" to the world around me? And so that I don't have to face up to the harder challenges and truths that a life with God presents?

While I believe that God's grace is big enough to cover my sins, even as they pertain to distorting his word, I wonder what I'm missing in the process? Holiness is the first thing that comes to mind...

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