Culture to the glory of God

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 22.37-40

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

1 Corinthians 10.31

As we’ve discussed church and culture the past two weeks, I’ve suggested that the way we talk about culture can be too broad and general to be of use. I wonder if it might be better to consider how we can be constructive within the groups of people we relate with and be productive in our craftwork. It seems to me relationships are part of what culture is after, and craft or skillful working is another aspect. At least in many places in the world, what ties big tent cultures together is a shared language and dialect, but this is far removed from the relationships, customs, and craftwork of the people.

So I wonder then if we could ask, ‘What areas of culture can we affect? And to what extent?’ This can be applied to relationships and this can be applied to our handiwork, and I think the Bible has a lot to say about both of these things. So first, we must realize our end: we must live in the sight of God. This means that we acknowledge that we are ultimately responsible to God for our actions, and whatever we do, we must do to the glory of God. In a similar way, our attitude must be that we both love God and love others. This is our burden as Christians. You could call these presuppositions in cultivating a culture.

Now to go beyond that, we must consider what cultures we can affect. Like last week’s devotion, we are able and we must train ourselves. We are the only creature in all creation that can train ourselves. And because of the pervasive nature of sin, we must train and fight against the controlling nature of sin. In so doing we set an example, we are lights in the darkness communicating that there is a hope of redemption. We can still fulfill to an extent our created and redeemed purposes. And this is where our physical labors can be wrapped into this discussion of culture. As individuals, made in the image of God, we subdue the earth. We are driven to make things of beauty and we could say that in our labor, which was a gift from God, we must pursue excellence. And it is not only moral excellence, or functional excellence, but it is also aesthetic excellence: is it beautiful? We’re building a playset over the long haul (it’s taking years), but I think it is quite a beautiful thing to integrate the playset into creation (in a small way). This August, we’ll be able to sit on the platform of the playset and pick the apples growing red on the apple tree. This is a beautiful thing in a simple way. We could also ask how such a thing accords with truth. Now a playset may not accord with truth in any meaningful way, but many of our adult works do. An artist may paint an abstract piece of art, but it is not untruthful if it draws out of the human soul a proper and truthful reaction. In other words, art may be more valuable than a photograph because of the depth of the truth, goodness, and beauty that it can draw out of the human soul.

If we were to move a step above, we could say that we can (and we do) affect our familial culture. As a parent or head of household, there is a particular responsibility in cultivating God-glorifying habits together and individually. We teach children to humbly apologize and receive an apology, to speak kindly and in a way that builds each other up. We teach the household the wonder of seeing a comet (alas, light pollution has hindered us from seeing it) and the hard work of tending a garden, pruning trees, and maintaining a household. We learn to love the unlovely together, participate in worship together at congregational gatherings and prepare ourselves throughout the week for it. We consider the humble state of the caterpillars (who seem to get eaten this year) and learn to wait expectantly for the flowers blooming in their season (no blue poppy flower…yet.) We sing songs of praise and lament, we read scripture, we pray, we memorize Psalms. These are things each household does in their own peculiar way, and in so doing we are able to control to an extent the culture of the family. But there comes times of sending off, which we hope will ultimately further the gospel to further fields when children, nieces and nephews, cousins and the like begin their own households. And even as one member of a couple will live beyond the other, or in single-person households, there is still a responsibility for the person remaining to maintain a God-glorifying home spinning whatever work God has laid before them. Certainly Bessie Andersen was an example of this to our church, whom we only knew in the 9th decade of her life.

Finally, of the cultures that we have a strong investment in, the regular church gathering is one which God has set up to affect us, perhaps the most. The culture of any church gathering must explicitly and implicitly be aimed at glorifying God and equipping the saints for the work of the ministry. And God has instructed us that the heart of the gathering is the proclamation of the word of God. The pulpit is raised for good reason. But the church is not the proclamation but the people who receive the proclamation and make every effort to respond. The people are shaped by the word to glorify God and make him known to the world. But the people also rub one another’s shoulders. We meet and spur one another on to love and good works. We consider our speech, not only refraining from negative talk such as gossip or slander, but pursuing “such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). The culture of the church is defined by love and empowered by his Spirit. There is a miraculous unity of culture within the church even though we may be extremely different and come from wildly different backgrounds and families. Each individual family culture is strong, but the unity of our confession is stronger, and our desire is to continue to grow together.

And I wonder if within the church we are able to produce some of the most beautiful and true arts of anyone. Because we know God’s word and revelation, we can then respond in worship through our work, often times serving the church. The man who designed our building in 1910 was a Baptist so seemingly he designed our building from his conviction as a Christian, and it is quite marvelous for such a humble place. While he designed other famous buildings in the Twin Cities, not all of them were explicit places to worship God. For others the craft of music can be used in a similar fashion. Bach is the example extraordinaire. But in our congregation, many have used their extraordinary musical craft that then shapes our church culture for the better. And others in simple ways have fixed gutters, cleaned or maintained things I couldn’t recount, or painted and decorated things beautifully, and this craftsmanship displays our concern to take care of what has been entrusted to us. In our own small ways, we are fulfilling our vocations within the congregation.

Beyond the individual, home and church, we are less certain of our roles given that we are not guaranteed scripturally a place in them. We may promote policy agendas or laws in our state senate or house. We may call our city council member. We may participate in neighborhood gatherings, or have a management role in a secular company. In all these things, I think it is important to take care not to over or under promise. We do not know the unintended consequences of any one thing that we are hoping to change. Many Christians fought hard for prohibition, but I’m not sure many expected the explosion of bootlegging as a consequence. This is perhaps why one author suggests that in the public square, we can seek to be faithfully planted wherever we are with whomever we have a relationship with. We should address non-revelatory issues with humility and treat others with dignity. We should ask, ‘How will my advocacy or activism affect my gospel witness?’ Too often in the name of a culture war we run over everyone else without considering Paul’s example, ‘I have become all things to all men so that by all means I might save some.’ In other words, the same habits we have cultivated in our hearts and homes and churches ought to be present in these other spheres. While we cannot predict the results of any particular effort, we do know the God who holds all things together, and as we seek to live in integrity, before the face of God, we can entrust our work to the Lord.

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